By Sarah Bachleda and Kate Toporski, College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship
What exactly does a multidisciplinary, innovation-focused graduate program look like? In the Fall of 2015, two Master’s of Design (MDes) students in the Integrative Design program at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design (Stamps) enrolled in an independent study program with the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) to research the ways engineers and designers work together in an entrepreneurial environment. The student researchers posed the question: what are the most effective methods for engineers and designers to co-create products with customers that successfully fulfill their needs or solve their problems?
The project began with an analysis of the socially constructed identities of engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. Lists of characteristics covered the walls of students Aditi Bidkar and Elizabeth Vander Veen’s Integrative Design Studio (their designated work space), each word tagged with the group that research participants associated with it. For example, “founder” most often paired with entrepreneur, “trendsetter” with designer, “inventor” with engineer, and so on. From there, the team began to break down the assumptions of these roles in order to understand how professionals in these disciplines could improve collaboration.
Bidkar and Vander Veen proposed that increasing connections between the fields, each with its own unique processes and approaches to tackling problems, could create revolutionary business responses. “We’re looking at the classic which-came-first dilemma: the chicken or the egg?” said Bidkar. “The same goes for the creation process – do the designers or the engineers start first? Should products be developed from the outside-in, or inside-out?”
The student team highlighted the need for a shift from traditional linear product development process to a fluid, cyclical model where professionals work together within a shared entrepreneurial space. Bidkar and Vander Veen then invited entrepreneurs, engineers, designers and classmates from other disciplines to participate in a workshop focused on co-creation. During the meet up, teams were formed based on combining diverse talents and perspectives, then tasked to work with a “customer” to create improved storage solutions for a given challenge.
From monthly storage subscription services to a free-hanging automated storage unit, the groups developed a wide variety of business ideas and miniature models that could easily be implemented in the market. The “customers” reported that the ideas presented were some of the most unique and life-applicable solutions they’ve seen.
Since this first step in validating their methods, the innovation duo is now working with the Center for Entrepreneurship and mentors at Stamps to find ways to integrate their learnings into entrepreneurial and educational best practices. “U of M’s resources like the CFE exist to better connect students of different practices, skills and fields for working together,” said Vander Veen. “By using these resources, designers and engineers can use entrepreneurial thinking and opportunities to take the next step in making serious change.”
Within the past few years, interest among the University’s STEM- and design-focused graduate students in learning creation, innovation and entrepreneurial skills has grown. The CFE at the College of Engineering has recognized this interest as an opportunity to leverage the combined strengths of graduate programs across the University, forming partnerships and collaborations with the Schools of Information, Public Health, Law, Nursing, Ross School of Business, the Medical School, and more to develop unique innovation-focused academic programs to fill this demand.
Graduate students engaged in these programs gain the ability to cross interdisciplinary boundaries to solve the complex problems of our time, while concurrently learning the tenets of innovation and entrepreneurship with their technical field of study. Students, like Bidkar and Vander Veen, will have enhanced teamwork skills and the knowledge necessary to guide product and process development in diverse industries and professional roles. This gives U-M graduates a competitive edge and allows them to have a more immediate and positive impact on local economy.
In the coming years, the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship and U-M partners will expand current class offerings to provide both certificate and stand-alone degree alternatives for graduate students.