Don Heer, Dale McCauley, and Sandra Miller (left to right) are providing experiential learning experiences for engineering and business majors.

Three years ago, Noah Hoffman had an inspiration for a wearable silent alarm clock that uses temperature change to wake up the user. The trouble was he lacked the tools and guidance to make it a reality until he became a student at Oregon State University.

As a freshman studying electrical and computer engineering, Hoffman got his chance to bring his idea to life in January at a hardware development competition called HWeekend. It is one of the many joint activities supported by the College of Engineering and the College of Business.

Prototype of the temperature-based alarm clock “A little idea that kept me awake years ago became a reality in under 30 hours. If that isn't magic, I don't know what is,” Hoffman said of the experience.

The interdisciplinary team that helped him build the first prototype that weekend included Abdurrahman Elmaghbub (electrical and computer engineering), Alexia Patterson (business), and Taylor Johnston (forestry). The team won the Executor award that weekend, voted on by all the participants as having the most polished final product.

“Honestly, it was Alexia's business presentation that really brought the invention to life,” Hoffman said.

The vision

That kind of appreciation and understanding of each other’s roles on a team is something that can only be learned by doing.

“A case study won’t help you learn things like how to deal with conflict on a team, delegating roles, and making decisions. So, the earlier we can give the students those experiences the better, especially in cross-disciplinary teams like they will have in the workforce,” said Dean Mitzi Montoya of the College of Business.

Experiential learning also has been a central part of education in the College of Engineering, which prides itself on graduates who are highly sought after for their profession-ready skills, added Kearney Professor and Dean Scott Ashford.

“One of our key strategic goals is to provide our students with a transformational educational experience that produces graduates who drive change throughout their lives,” he said. “Dean Montoya and I share the conviction that students benefit greatly from opportunities to work on real projects that have real impacts, so this is a natural partnership.”

A living-learning community

Video of HWeekend Winter 2017

What could be better for sparking innovation than easy access to tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, and computer controlled milling machines? How about putting it in an on-campus dormitory? Then giving students 24/7 access and a staff to help them learn the tools? It sounds like dream come true for a young inventor. And thanks to the partnership of the two colleges and University Housing and Dining, it is a dream that became a reality this fall.

“When students were moving in to the dorms there was a sign on the door that said, ‘Coming soon: Your new makerspace.’ I left the door unlocked and students would wander in to see what it was about, and the excitement was absolutely palpable,” said Dale McCauley, the makerspace manager for the College of Business.

Both Colleges have created living-learning communities on campus: all first-year business students are required to live in Weatherford Hall, and all pre-engineering students are encouraged to live in Hawley and Buxton Halls. The DAMlab Makerspace is centrally located on the first floor of Buxton Hall.

“It is a fantastic resource to have on campus,” said Hoffman, who is part of the living-learning community and has used the 3D printer for many of his projects.

Sparking innovation and collaboration

HWeekend, which inspired Hoffman, is just one of many entry points into the innovation community on campus. Hoffman is also the secretary for Inventors Enterprise, a student club sponsored by both colleges. The club works together on projects (like an app to make parking garages more efficient), and plans to take over the responsibility of putting on future HWeekends.

Don Heer, instructor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, created HWeekend and organized and ran the first seven. The event is also a networking experience for students, drawing mentors from companies like Eaton, HP, Intel, Microsemi, Micron, and Rockwell-Collins.

Noah Hoffman, Abdurrahman  Elmaghbub, Taylor Johnston, and Alexia Patterson make a  plan for their project at HWeekend. Heer is also part of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship committee composed of faculty from engineering and business who want to develop more innovation opportunities for students both within and outside the curriculum. He said the collaboration with business adds another dimension to experiential learning in engineering.

“The engineering is only good if there is an application that people want. So, I’m trying to provide students with situations where they have to work with others to figure out if what they are doing also makes sense to the rest of the world,” Heer said.

The College of Business provides activities such as workshops, mentoring, and start-up weekends for all students through InnovationX, the college’s emerging Center of Excellence for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. For example, Sandra Miller, the director of InnovationX, holds a drop-in workshop (LaunchU) once a week for students of any major who want to learn more about design thinking and methodologies to get a deeper understanding of user needs. To do this, she leads them through hands-on projects, such as prototyping a wallet, where they start with customer interviews.

Miller also co-taught a seminar course winter term with Todd Palmer, professor of nuclear science and engineering, called The Business of Technology-based Startups, where they brought in co-founders of companies to describe the different ways they approached building and scaling-up their company. She explained it’s not just for students who plan to launch a startup.

“Large companies are increasingly adopting entrepreneurial and innovation methodologies. What that means, is all our students absolutely need to have some of that vocabulary and fluency around innovation and entrepreneurship because they're going to be needing it in business,” Miller said.

Graduate-level education

The partnership between the two colleges extends beyond undergraduate education. In fall of 2017, the first students will arrive for a new master’s track in software innovation. The track is intended for software developers who want to upgrade their skills so that they can eventually become software designers and architects. It was the brain child of Chris Scaffidi, associate professor of computer science, who saw a need for a master’s program that was project-based rather than research-based.

“This program is particularly relevant for people wanting to advance in industry because it is designed to develop technical, teamwork and leadership skills though real-world projects,” Scaffidi said.

The centerpieces of the track’s computer science courses are agile development, software project management, and software maintenance and evolution. Scaffidi partnered with James Coakley, associate dean of the College of Business, who is designing the business portion of the curriculum including courses on managerial decision tools, managing and marketing, and venture management.

Coming full circle

Since many of the partnership programs are new there no metrics yet to measure the impact they are having on students, but that is something that Heer is working on next. Scaffidi also plans to closely watch the success of the graduate program. In the meantime, staff in engineering and business are gauging success by the popularity of the programs.

“My office is right across from the makerspace, and when I leave in the evening I look in to see what is happening, and there's always people working in there. And that's just awesome!” Miller said.