College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Pitching plastics: innovation to entrepreneurship

Dr. Shan Jiang standing and speaking to a student next to him. Both are looking at a document.

Innovation is as important as ever on university campuses, and it’s no different in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at Iowa State University where students will pitch pitched plastic products as the part of a course that takes students along the path from innovation to entrepreneurship.

Shan Jiang, associate professor in MSE, wanted a way to connect student’s innovation with entrepreneurship, all while remaining sustainable.

“You can teach a theory, but it is impossible to teach innovation,” Jiang said. “However, if you give students a problem they are engaged in, they will try their best, they will innovate on things they are passionate about. That is the challenge, combining what they learn in the classroom and using topics they are enthusiast about.”


Jiang saw an opportunity for synergy with the REFORM Club he created and through a VentureWell course grant, which advances innovation and entrepreneurship education and provides unique opportunities for STEM students and researchers.

A 3D-printed ocarina sits in the REFORM lab.
A 3D-printed ocarina, a wind instrument, sits in the REFORM lab.
Shan Jiang holds and discusses printing materials with Ayman Karmi.
Shan Jiang discusses printing materials with a member of the REFORM Club.

REFORM, or REcyclables FOR Music, is a student club that lets students take reclaimed plastic and use it to 3D print recyclable musical instruments. This required some initial investments in proper equipment, like a grinder and extruder to get the proper consistency when breaking down the reclaimed plastic. The plastic obtained is all on campus, a lot of it from discarded architecture models made by Iowa State architecture students.

Abby Stanlick, REFORM president, has been a member since the beginning. She said she enjoys working with other members from different backgrounds and majors and is thankful she can see the other side of materials science, like the equipment it takes to study and learn about different materials.

Innovation to entrepreneurship

This spring, Jiang remixed the notes played by REFORM and their equipment with the tune of entrepreneurship with a one-credit course, funded by the VentureWell grant, that will combine the know-how of recycling plastics properly, with the skills needed to create a product, develop a business plan behind it and bring it to market.

“They can come in, learn how to do [recycle plastic] and understand the plastic problem, then they can do whatever they want to possibly make a profit at the end,” Jiang said. “We teach them basic things about business planning and entrepreneurship and let them innovate along the way.”

Dr. Shan Jiang standing and speaking to a student next to him. Both are looking at a document.

Jiang is co-instructing with Dr. Lingyao Yuan, assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems and Business Analytics in the Ivy College of Business at Iowa State. She designed the curriculum for the business side of the course like project management, customer discovery, business presentations, entrepreneurship and more.

“The biggest benefit from my perspective, along with the knowledge of recycling and sustainability, is the experience,” Yuan said. “Entrepreneurship simply cannot be taught in classrooms or labs, but with actual experience. Students will have the chance to experience the “birth” and “growth”—maybe “death”—of an innovative idea. And they are not alone. They get the exposure to work with others, probably people with different backgrounds.”

The goal is to have students develop a product from the reclaimed plastic, build a business plan around it, and present a “pitch” at the end of the semester.

“Innovation at the end of the day is about knowledge, and if you don’t have knowledge, how do you innovate?” Jiang said. “These are real world challenges. Business students and engineering students think on different levels, and this course is wonderful way of marrying those two. Everyone wants to do innovation and make a more sustainable world, and now this is an opportunity to do just that.”