Collaboration in the Classroom

An experimental course offers students the chance to work in interdisciplinary teams to create and market new products.
Afew years ago, Neal Lewis, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Technology Management, noticed the lack of opportunity for course-based interaction between engineering, business, and design students. While it makes sense in academia for students to focus on taking courses within their major and academic department, Lewis knows that industry is not as compartmentalized; research and development typically work hand in hand with marketing. It seemed logical to develop an inter-program experience that would incorporate elements of engineering, business, and design courses and produce a “real-world” endpoint.

Lewis reached out to School of Engineering colleagues, Navarun Gupta, Ph.D., Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Jani Macari Pallis, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Gad J. Selig, Associate Dean of Business Development and Director of the Technology Management Program, as well as Art McAdams, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in the School of Business, and Professors Richard Yelle and Alex White in the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design, to collaborate on this new project. The result: the creation of an experimental course in New Product Commercialization for engineering, business, and design students.

UB’s curriculum already offers a number of courses within the majors that include product design and concept development. As Lewis explains, “these courses are fairly typical of each discipline, and are adequate for the first phases of the product development process.” In fact, foundation courses on product design, product management, marketing, finance, and a basic understanding of strategic management are critical pre-requisites for the course. But this new course takes the next step, providing the interdisciplinary student teams with the resources needed to build product prototypes, develop marketing materials, and perform patent surveys in support of commercializing new products.The team behind the creation of the course secured two rounds of planning grant funding from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), which covered course development and the pilot of the first class in the spring 2013 semester. Twenty students enrolled from three schools and six majors, including Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Business Administration, Technology Management, Industrial Design, and Design Management. NCIIA just awarded a new multi-year grant to Lewis that will provide much-needed funding to establish the course as a permanent offering.

collaboration_400In New Product Commercialization, student teams are created with at least one engineering, management, and design representative per team, which translates into having “experts” from each represented major on a team. A comprehensive approach is employed, in which the team conceives of a product idea that is designed by the designer and engineer, with a prototype built by the designer, and a marketing and finance plan developed by the management student. Lewis notes that the concept is essentially, “mimicking what businesses do,” which takes the course beyond the endpoints of similar courses in the individual majors and simulates actual industry practice.

Students quickly learn that they are working with people who think differently than they do and approach problems in a completely different way. This is one of the major learning steps in interdisciplinary teams: working with people who have a completely different set of skills and perspectives.

The teams are given the option to propose their own project ideas or use an existing company’s concept. (International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation and Pitney Bowes have approached Lewis to participate.) For example, imagine an end product that can accurately and precisely read core body temperature via the bridge of your nose. What does the device look like? How could this idea be made into a prototype? Who would purchase the technology? These are some of the questions to be answered by the student team.In addition to the in-class experience, some students will gain sufficient experience and impetus to actually launch a new company from prototype development. These promising entrepreneurs could then choose to open an office in UB’s own high-tech CTech IncUBator, a partnership with Connecticut Innovations that is housed on UB’s main campus. Successful teams also have the option to work with an existing incubator company or work with an existing area firm. In fact, two students are interested in starting their own businesses to launch products conceived in the course, and two graduating industrial design majors are creating their own design consulting business.

Lewis is adapting and reinventing coursework to counteract the effects of a stiff economic climate and increased competition in the workplace — a new option in the workforce is to become self employed. It is the hope that the class may eventually spin off into other courses that will be relevant to the changing domestic employment outlook as well as across the globe.

As Lewis moves forward with the advice and collaboration of colleagues to permanently establish this course and others, new venues of entrepreneurial education and experience will be offered at UB, providing students with the chance to design complex products that can solve great issues in many disciplines, ranging from health to science to technology.

By pushing students outside of their academic and skill-based comfort zones into a guided mentorship that typifies industry, this experimental course in New Product Commercialization is destined to produce future business leaders, technology gurus and design experts who are confident and have a measure of experience under their belts to transition successfully into entrepreneurial ventures after graduation.