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Since 1995, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) has been offering an experiential interdisciplinary learning format that has become part of university core curriculum that all undergraduates complete in order to graduate. The Interprofessional Projects Program (IPRO) prepares IIT undergraduate students for the practical challenges they will face in a changing workplace by emulating a cross-functional team environment.
Founded in 1890, IIT is a private, Ph.D.-granting research university that awards degrees in engineering, the sciences, architecture, law, design, psychology, humanities, and business. A strategic direction for IIT was established in 1994: in the face of competitive and financial weaknesses, reinvestments in the campus location and reinvention of the curriculum were initiated in order to support the distinctiveness of the undergraduate curriculum and attract students. The distinctiveness and resulting enhanced competitiveness of IIT undergraduate programs were enhanced by introducing the IPRO course as a new university-business collaboration initiative. It began as a pilot programme in 1995 and became a regular part of the undergraduate curriculum in 1999. The IPRO concept was inspired by feedback from companies like Boeing and from accreditation agencies who felt that engineering graduates generally needed greater university experience in teamwork and communication in order to be attractive candidates for corporate positions. In addition to the emphasis on teamwork and communication, the introduction of user-centred design thinking helped advance the program. With 20-200 students from various disciplines involved in the program per semester in the pilot phase, IPROs grew and developed to become an IIT general education requirement that now involves on the order of 100 Teams and 600 students participating each semester.
Semester-long projects based on contemporary open-ended problem-solving opportunities
IPRO course offers students experience in tackling a semester-long open-ended challenge as part of an interdisciplinary team. Project topics reflect the diversity of the workplace, offering a wide range of choices for students to apply knowledge from their disciplines. An important aspect of the IPRO Program is the involvement of workplace organizations that identify viable “real world” complex topics and provide financial support and professional advice to IPRO teams throughout the semester. Approximately one-third of IPRO projects are financially sponsored, with additional projects benefitting from informal collaboration with a range of business, non-profit, entrepreneurial, and public sector organizations. The current (Spring 2020) IPRO model allows students to choose from two IPRO options.
In the IPRO Themed Workshop, the sponsor organization offers a challenge and then 50 to 100 students (divided into small interdisciplinary teams of 3 to 5 students) spend the semester developing either a working prototype or a rigorous research paper based on the challenge. The Spring 2020 topic areas include: Energy & Environmental Innovation, Frontiers of Technological Innovation, Public Safety Innovation, Urban Liveability Innovation with a focus on water, STEM Education and Community, and Digital Service Design Workshop.
The Special Projects follow the “classic” IPRO format that has a single problem to explore through an integrated team approach with students organized in task groups that work toward a common goal – a rigorous research and development project. A small group of students (between 10 to 15) from various disciplines appropriate to the topic work closely with the faculty on all aspects of the project. In Spring 2020 semester, the projects include: Developing Remote Telescope for Use with IBM Watson Technology, NASA+SAElectric Vehicle Design, Designing for Nicaragua, Electrical & Energy Efficiency – Strategies for Sustainability, Power Over Ethernet: Lighting Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities and Capabilities Analysis, Engineering Life in the Service of Humanity: The IGEM Competition, Plastic Waste Mitigation, and Consulting Unplugged.
To provide an example of the students’ projects, a collection of IPRO students’ posters is available on IPRO website that demonstrates the topics addressed by IPRO teams. As water is covering over 70% of the earth and being essential to life, water is a topic that continues to be of interest to many industries and disciplines – particularly in the realm of innovation and design. Over the years IPRO projects have focused on water through a variety of contemporary lenses: accessibility, quality, health, transport, farming, urban planning, disaster mitigation and sustainability. Other examples of IPRO projects include e.g. architecture, humanities and engineering students collaborating on low-cost shelter solutions; or chemistry, business and law students working together to develop best practices in CO2-reducing technologies.
IPRO Requirements that Satisfy Accreditation and Develop Future Leaders
IPRO course has several learning objectives that are addressed in the process of grappling with a complex open-ended problem that requires collaboration by students from multiple disciplines:
- Teamwork: How to be an effective member of an interdisciplinary team, adding the expertise of your discipline and working on topics broader than your major field.
- Communication: How to effectively communicate the technical and non-technical aspects of a project to key stakeholders.
- Logically correct reasoning: The ability to generate a hypothesis using inductive logic (leveraging creativity and design methods), and then prove/disprove it using deductive logic (leveraging prototyping and scientific thinking).
- Project management: Deliver a desired, planned outcome with time and resource constraints.
- Ethics: How to act ethically when conducting research, working in teams, and creating solutions.
IPRO teamwork activities typically progress through five phases, from project definition, to research & analysis, concept development, prototyping & testing, and conveying the work. The teaching and learning process involves a number of activities and deliverables. For instance, IPRO teams are strongly encouraged to create a basic project plan that captures a team’s collective view about the organization and goals of the team, tasks and assignments, schedule and deliverables for the project, and a forecast of budget needs. IPRO teams are then required to present a midterm presentation about their project with at least three external professionals knowledgeable about the project topic to provide feedback to the students on their project. They are also required to create an exhibit for the IPRO Day event. This generally involves creating and printing posters as well as prototypes, videos, and other means of communicating the story of a project and its outcomes or results. The teams give a final presentation about their project and may create a final report or other document that captures a team’s project work in a professional manner for distribution to sponsors, community partners and other stakeholders. The students also participate in the course evaluation process through a survey, which contributes to the assessment of the achievement of the IPRO learning goals and provide feedback to the IPRO Program that can lead to improvements in the experience. The students are graded on the quality and level of effort each team member demonstrates, the participation and functioning of the students as members of a team, and the overall performance of the team, which includes its effectiveness in collaboration, and achieving the project goals, deliverables and outcomes in a quality fashion.
At the end of the semester, IPRO teams participate in the IPRO Day event by showcasing their semester-long project. Professionals from the Chicago area, including a consistently large proportion of IIT alumni, serve as judges or are invited as guests to visit exhibits and offer IPRO teams an opportunity to share their methods and project outcomes. IPRO teams are organized by themes, with the top-ranked teams recognized at the IPRO Day closing ceremony.
The establishment of the IPRO course and its evolution over nearly 25 years has significantly improved the ability of IIT to attract students because it has been a sustainable, distinctive approach to experiential education that prepares students for the way that they will work in teams and on projects. The IPRO course has also had a significant impact on how IIT alumni engage with the university by offering topics for IPRO teams, sponsoring IPRO projects, serving as mentors and IPRO instructors. Engaging alumni in a sustainable fashion is a challenge all universities face, and the IPRO course offers a terrific way for alumni to remain involved and become inspired to support the university financially as well. IPRO has offered a significant platform for faculty to crystallize their ideas for research projects that can lead to external funding, as well as encourage students to participate in research in areas of faculty interest. It has also offered opportunities to faculty members to develop their coaching skills and to collaborate with faculty from other university departments.
IPRO has also created an impact on student employment and workplace validation,strengthening the resumes of IIT students seeking internships and career positions, and provided strong “talking points” in interviews with recruiters that underscore the practical IPRO experience they have gained and the unique user-centred design methods they have learned, which sets them apart from the competition for positions in industry and government. IIT students and graduates are differentiated by their readiness and ability to manoeuvre in a complex work environment—skills that cannot be learned in a classroom alone. IPRO offers an environment to help students develop the discipline, leadership, and communication skills to succeed within a multidisciplinary group.
Since 1995, hundreds of organizations have participated in IPRO as sponsors and collaborators, including corporations of all sizes, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations (museums, community organizations, etc.), government agencies, industry associations, philanthropic foundations, etc. Within IPRO, they become acquainted with students to identify recruiting prospects, they build relationships with research faculty, challenge a multidisciplinary team with a real and complex problem, and support the needs of non-profit community partners.
This blog article is written with reference to a good practice case study report prepared as part of the Erasmus+ University City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) Project.