KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In a time when face-to-face interaction is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, Western Michigan University students gained even more experience while participating in the annual Innovation Expo. Rather than creating projects independently as they have done in previous years, the University found a way to safely connect students to mentors from regional businesses to work with them through the product design competition.
Sponsored by the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the 2020 Innovation Expo included 80 multidisciplinary WMU students who presented their unique products or services virtually, showing proof of concept or working prototypes. Local professionals worked with their teams through the whole process, including developing concepts, products, research and presentations. These new relationships proved to be invaluable, not only to students' professional development but also providing them with real-world perspective and coaching.
WMU faculty partnered with Southwest Michigan First to identify professionals from regional businesses for the event held annually the first Friday of December. Historically, economic development advisors focused solely on securing professional designers to judge student projects.
"Encouraging the students with an opportunity to build relationships with individual mentors exposed them to local companies and, hopefully, job opportunities. In fact, more than one student secured an internship from this interaction," says Petey Stephanak, partner at Southwest Michigan First. "There is great value in these relationships, for the student, the mentors and especially for the company talent pipelines. Access and familiarity to emerging talent, a clear understanding of what skills the students are developing and supporting a new generation of talent is an asset to the companies that support and engage with this program."
The mentorship arrangement was unique to this semester and was available to students in one of the two courses presenting at the expo, an advanced product and service design course taught by Dr. Tycho Fredericks, professor of professional industrial and entrepreneurial engineering. He says providing mentorships helped students and the community stay connected, despite the event being held virtually to accommodate COVID-19 safety precautions.
"Students had to learn to pivot just like businesses. Their world did not stop. The environment changed, and everyone needed to adapt quickly," says Fredericks, who is also director of the Human Performance Institute and program chief for medical engineering at WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. "It was an incredible experience for the students, and the mentors found it rewarding, as well."
Thinking beyond the projects
Comprising 12 different groups, 61 students worked with industry mentors from Tekna, Stryker Corp., Whirlpool, Filter Studio and Middleton Design. Also serving as judges for the event were regional professionals from Stryker, Tekna, Newell Brands, New Futures: A Division of Fabri-Kal, WMU's Haworth College of Business and Southwest Michigan First. Judges selected the top projects after students presented a five-minute pitch and unique commercial.
Mentors helped students look beyond the requirements of the project, says junior Anthony Huberty, whose team worked with Mike Nellenbach, vice president of product innovation for Tekna. Their product was Get-A-Grip, a portable and removable rock climbing training device. With Nellenbach's guidance, the team not only addressed user requirements in the project—how to make a portable, hanging unit—but also effectively explain the product to judges who may not be familiar with rock climbing.
"He helped us determine product specifications that would benefit and appeal to our end user and how we could effectively explain the choices we made to the judges," says Huberty of Portage, Michigan, who is studying product design and innovation. "On top of that, Mike put our group in touch with an experienced rock climber who is also a professional designer. This helped our group determine what was important to experienced climbers while setting our product apart from other products on the market."
Mentors gave students advice not just on development but on how to best present their finished products, adds team member Emily Ekkens.
"He asked questions we would experience in the 'real world' that our group might otherwise have overlooked," says Ekkens, a December 2020 biomedical sciences graduate from Richland, Michigan. "When it came time to develop our presentation for the expo, Mike helped to make sure our presentation was professional, and that we were prepared for judging. Our mentor really cared about our group and our success in the expo, and this really motivated us to do our best."
The mentoring was a bonus even for the business professionals who aren't usually part of projects until they are competed and ready to be judged, says Nellenbach, adding that students worked hard and were willing to receive criticism.
"Personally, I try not to get in the way of their vision and creativity with opinions that have been shaped through my own experience but provide guidance on things to consider for a well-rounded solution and a compelling story. At this level, the focus should be more on the process than on the final product," Nellebach says.
"I want young people to pursue a degree in something they love. If it’s a design-related field, if you are not passionate about what you do, you won’t put in the extra work needed to be successful," he added. "I also want them to focus on developing a well-rounded tool box—drawing, building, communicating, problem-solving, professionalism, etc. As an employer, we have the responsibility to help that individual understand how to deploy those tools in the professional environment and guide them with their strengths while (working on) some of their weaknesses."
For mentor Bill Fluharty, director of design for Stryker Medical Division, the experience was an opportunity to not only sharpen students' design skills but also their collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.
He and a team of five students focused on developing an app to help cyclists plan their gear for trips. Their product, the Lookout app, helps cyclists prepare for their ride considering local weather reports and potential obstructions; it took second place among the 12 entries.
Collaboration among team members and working with multiple disciplines is critical in the workplace, Fluharty says.
"In an education setting, it is one thing to do group projects with others who are working on the same degree; it's totally different working with those studying other related specialties," he says. "These competencies will serve them well in any endeavor they pursue going forward."
The competition also allowed mentors to get to know the up-and-coming talent pool of potential employees.
"I get to witness how they think and problem-solve. I also get to see how they collaborate, which is hard to understand in a few interviews when in the hiring process," Fluharty says. "I like that I can contribute a small amount to their education by sharing my experiences. It gives me a chance to give something back to the creative community that supported me in my own career."
He adds, "These are our future employees and having a chance to shape them a bit or to expose them to what could be available to them when they graduate might help them to stay local and contribute to the talent pool that we are all so concerned about."
Ian Middleton, owner and designer of Middleton Designs in Kalamazoo, worked with students who explored different options for securing a bike.
"They had a good grasp on not only the direction they wanted to go in, in terms of the problem they wanted to solve, but the issues they wanted to address and avoid. They worked well as a team, delegating and dividing the tasks among themselves and communicating between the group and me," says Middleton, who has a background in industrial and jewelry design.
Scheduling face-to-face meetings was a challenge, he adds, but students were motivated and responsive to his suggestions.
"The only times I really had to push and help out was during the modeling phase and giving direction when getting user response and feedback to their models. On a whole, I feel this experience for them is immense and will only benefit them down the road," Middleton says.
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