Last January, five Marquette undergraduates studying engineering and business worked on a remarkable challenge. Milwaukee’s Direct Supply, Inc., a national leader in its field, informed them of a project it was considering — adapting a third-party robot to support the needs of residents in senior living facilities. Executives then asked the students how they’d approach the project.
Like other teams participating in the second-annual Direct Supply Hackathon held at Marquette, this team dug into a real-world challenge over a 12-hour day. And at day’s end, they impressed the sponsors with their ideas, which centered on enabling robots to converse with seniors while evaluating their word choices for evidence of status changes, such as depression or confusion, that would prompt human follow-up contact. With judges describing the project’s originality and usability as “awesome,” team members took the top prize in the “social robotics” category. Several even accepted an invitation to continue working on the ideas alongside colleagues at Direct Supply over the months that followed.
Remarkable stories like this are more common than they used to be, and they’re loaded with lessons about the exciting ways in which the interaction between students, universities and corporate partners is evolving and becoming defined by creativity and interdisciplinary cooperation.
As leaders of the colleges of business and engineering at Marquette University, we encounter almost daily reminders of how fortunate our students are to study near the heart of a region filled with strong corporate partners. Internships and co-ops that alternate work in industry with related academic study remain integral parts of the student experience; nearly three-quarters of our students take advantage of them.
These days, a number of corporate partners are reaching further, sponsoring events such as hackathons, design competitions and maker fairs that immerse students in challenges straight out of the business world. For students, the challenges bring a sense of fun and gamesmanship to an early foray into real-world problem solving and corporate networking. Corporate sponsors highlight their roles as innovators and see potential future hires in a setting that reveals much more than a job interview.
Increasingly, these corporate-academic events prepare students for another key demand of the world they’ll encounter after graduation — the need to work in cross-disciplinary teams. Annual competitions, such as the Rockwell Design Challenge and the Direct Supply Hackathon, invite such collaboration, encouraging students to find peers from business, engineering, science or other disciplines before signup. The members of the winning Hackathon robotics team credit discussions drawing on both their business and engineering backgrounds with the creative breakthrough that set up their success. In addition to the engineering work, the team engaged in qualitative consumer insight work — including using their grandparents as an impromptu focus group — to ensure that the “voice of the consumer” was reflected in the final project solution. This partnering of engineering and business ensured a product that was both technically sound and relevant to the market.
Suffice it to say, these are trends we’re taking to heart as deans of our colleges. Whether the topic is jointly developed curriculum in areas spanning manufacturing and supply chain or visions for new spaces where business partners can co-locate and tap faculty expertise and student ideas, our most exciting opportunities are those we’re pursuing together. When the partnerships involve leading corporations and faculty, staff and students from business, engineering and other fields, the results really are “awesome.”
Dr. Brian Till is Keyes Dean of Marquette’s College of Business Administration.