Logo: University of Southern California

Sino-U.S. Student Relations Forged in i-Podium Class

USC's Viterbi School and Peking University collaborate on 'Global Innovation'

January 29, 2010 —

The Chinese undergraduate students and their USC counterparts from the Viterbi and Marshall Schools sat in rows of four, facing each other with backs straight and faces attentive.

Nothing less than the Pacific Ocean, a 16-hour time difference and a videoconference connection separated them. Meanwhile Viterbi School Professor Stephen Lu’s voice broadcast maxims regarding the global economics and innovation opportunities of globalization.

Images of Peking University students and USC Viterbi students are broadcast to each other.

“What’s really behind the subprime mortgage crisis, for example?” asked Lu, who is the David Packard Chair in Manufacturing Engineering and a professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. “Oversupply of credit. When there’s oversupply, traditional economic theory breaks down and doing-business-as-usual will go terribly wrong.”

Twenty-four student faces registered agreement from two classrooms on the USC and PKU campuses, 6,000 miles apart.

In a groundbreaking exercise combining both the international and virtual, Lu launched the inaugural course of the i-Podium program, an experimental, cooperative global innovation education program between USC and the prestigious Chinese university, Peking University (PKU).

“i-Podium is the next step on our vision for Technology-Enhanced Access to the Classroom,” says VIterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos. “But more than that, it offers a unique opportunity to bridge cultures and oceans and to achieve a truly global education across the world.”

For the three-unit class, Lu and his counterparts at PKU, Dean Shiyi Chen and Prof. Jianqui Tian, are bringing together a group of 12 handpicked USC Viterbi and Marshall students and 12 competitively selected PKU students for a 23-week course in “Principle and Practice of Global Innovation Teams”. The USC and PKU students were chosen for their academic excellence, varying past experiences, and ability to work in inter-disciplinary and cross-culture teams. The course will culminate with a four-week on-site collaborative team project session at the PKU campus in Beijing.

"This is indeed a new beginning, and a milestone for global education,” Tian says.

The i-Podium concept is simple: Students from different cultures can learn as much from each other as from the course instructor. And cross-cultural education is especially important in teaching future leaders emerging socio-technical subjects, such as the principles of global innovation.

Viterbi Professor Stephen Lu delivers the inaugural iPodium lecture.

The “i” in i-Podium illustrates this idea: it stands for international, innovative, interactive, immersive, integrated, interchange and any combination of the above.

With that in mind, Lu and Tian designed the course so that the PKU and USC students could participate in live interaction in class lectures in real time, hold online discussions and brainstorm online, offline and also face-to-face. The course subject matter leverages the idea of cultural diversity inspiring technological innovation for the global markets.

“The idea is to have the students, despite cultural, location and disciplinary differences, work together closely and collaboratively as innovation teams solving important global problems,” Lu said.

Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Chair Jim Moore praised Lu's vision and leadership in bringing the effort to fruition.

"It is rewarding beyond measure to see committed faculty members, bright students, the right technology, and good ideas come together in a perfect array of opportunities," says Moore. "USC and PKU students will emerge from this element of their education with an unparalleled competitive advantage."

Unlike most courses where midterms, exams, and homework tend to be the norm, the i-Podium program seeks to put culturally-diverse students from both universities in the mindset of global innovation stakeholders – engineers, marketers, government affairs, and even as consumers, themselves.

All students in the class will work in six project teams, each with two Trojans paired with two Chinese students. The teams will be tasked with identifying and alleviating an environmental problem plaguing both university campuses. Lu hopes that the student teams develop these innovative solutions to such dire problems that their ideas can not only help to make their campuses “greener,” but also subsequently commercialized in global markets.

Peking University leadership weighed in with personal congratulations following the first lecture, says Lu.

Viterbi and Marshall students listen attentively in class.

Traditional courses mostly focus on teaching students specific domain knowledge. In contrast, the i-Podium class is aimed at nurturing students’ ability to think globally and reason innovatively, rather than teaching the disciplinary knowledge of how to innovate, Lu had said.

In a coincidental turn, the course’s PKU technical advisor is a former Ph.D. student of Lu’s. “Professor James Cai is also a Trojan,” Lu told the class. “He was my Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, and he’s now a professor of engineering and management schools at one of the top universities in all of Asia.”

The staffs of the Distance Education Network and PKU technical support were on hand to ensure smooth operation, and audio and video streamed clearly from both ends.

During class, Lu thanked the deans, faculty and staff at USC and PKU whose visionary leadership and hard work have made this program possible. He also thanked an anonymous donor, whose generous support enables students from two top universities in USA and China to learn with, and from, each other interactively and collaboratively without leaving home. As the donor commented, this is indeed the true spirit of the learner-centered education paradigm and a new chapter of global education in the 21st century.