Throw together an engineer, an artist and a marketer and ask them to develop the next hot commercial product — together.
Give these students 15 weeks to do it, and tell them their class grade depends partly on what their peers say about them. And require them to build a prototype by semester’s end.
There are definitely a few “personnel” challenges, says Allan Weber, the Viterbi lecturer behind the groundbreaking EE459 course, which has brought together students from three disciplines to develop products that incorporate advanced processing technology.
Sometimes the dynamic personalities end up running the show. Other times, the engineering students had trouble digesting the function of the marketing students, and vice versa. And inevitably, someone always felt another student is not pulling his weight.
“I’d tell them to get used to the real world and working with people they might not like,” Weber says. “And they did. The end result has engineers working with people in other fields as equals. This is a true interdisciplinary experience in product development.”
EE459's Spring 2009 Team Sony, incorporating team members from Viterbi, Marshall and Fine Arts, with the project board from their energy-saving device.
At the beginning of the semester, Weber and his collaborating professors — Therese Wilbur of Marshall and Tom Schorer of Fine Arts — would divide students from each of the three disciplines into small teams. Each team would choose a brand such as Apple, Brookstone or Nike, and work with that brand’s concept to develop a product pre-selected by the professors.
In EE459’s first year, the students developed working prototypes of an alarm clock capable of a different setting for each day of the week — fitting for a students’ varying academic schedule. The second year, the instructors chose on an energy-saving device for home entertainment centers.
That year, a real-world company was bringing a similar product to market at a price point of $200, Weber says, which got the students excited about entrepreneurship possibilities around their product.
“They were laughing, saying they’d done the research and that the product would never sell for that,” Weber says, adding that student marketers found a $70 price sticker to be more realistic.
For the semester-long course, students were assigned differing tasks: engineers were responsible for the technological aspects of the product, the marketers conducted focus groups and market research, and the fine arts students built full-scale models of the final product, complete with logos and packaging.
The Logitech team: Viterbi students Joseph Benson, Urmila Mahadev and Roger Han.
The teamwork is where the ingenuity emerged, Weber says, as cross-collaboration helps produce something a consumer might “actually want to pay money for,” Weber says.
As EE459 enters its third year in spring 2010, enrollment is strong, and the professors have chosen a household thermostat with energy saving features as the product to be developed.
Weber says the class prepares Viterbi graduates well for the working world. ”Past students have told us talking about the collaborative experience helped them at job interviews,” Weber says.
“And people in industry say they want to hire engineers who can work across disciplines.”