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Next-generation engineering

Two Curriculum Innovation Fund projects are rethinking design and exploring entertainment technology
March 17, 2015
By J. Latimer

What would Steve Jobs do? That’s the question many product developers ask themselves, hoping to channel the late Mr. Jobs and his talent for tapping the zeitgeist.

“Steve Jobs’s genius was figuring out what to design, not how to design it,” says William Lynch, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “There’s immense value in being able to figure out what to design. If we can shift the emphasis in our design courses to a customer-focused approach at the specifications stage, that will be a real competitive advantage for our program and our students.”

Determined to put this concept into action, Lynch and his co-investigator, Nawwaf Kharma, associate professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, applied to the Curriculum Innovation Fund (CIF), a Concordia initiative that supports faculty members as they explore ways to improve classes and teaching methods.

A joint effort of the Office of the Provost and the School of Graduate Studies, the fund upholds an objective of the university's Academic Plan, to provide students with dynamic programs and engaging learning experiences.

Lynch and Kharma’s proposal was accepted and led to the experimental transformation of a third-year design course, ELEC/COEN 390, in which students created apps for an android smart phone. This term is the second time they’ve taught the one-term class.

The customer’s always right

“The old 390 course was built around a competition model, so students were told exactly what to design or they’d sit around a table and come up with what they wanted to design,” says Lynch. “But this time, they had to interview customers first and ask open-ended questions to determine what the market really needed. If it’s an app for runners, what difficulties do they encounter? If it’s an app for campers, what are their issues?”

Talking to the department’s industrial advisory board, Lynch discovered that the workforce uses this approach at the specification stage in the design process.

 “New engineers usually require a lot of training before they let the customer’s voice lead them to specifications, so industry is very encouraging of our new initiative,” say Lynch, who used the CIF to cover time spent developing the program, in consultation with Kharma, industry advisors and Nadia Bhuiyan, the associate director of the Concordia Institute for Aerospace and Design Innovation. “It’s a big change in how we teach design — how most schools teach design — but it’ll be a leg up for our program,” say Lynch. 

Catherine Bolton, Concordia’s vice-provost of Teaching and Learning, sees the change to 390 as a great way to provide students with 21st-century skills.

“Because the innovation happened within the department, it was relatively easy to accommodate within the structure of the university,” says Bolton. “It gets much more tricky when CIF projects are cross-disciplinary, co-taught across different faculties." 

That’s entertainment

A case in point would be another CIF-winning project — an initiative to create a cross-disciplinary one-year diploma in Entertainment Technology (ET). The three core courses would be special effects and animation, interactive technology and programming.

“The goal is to have an inter-disciplinary program in which we train students after they have their basic degree in computer science or computation arts or fine arts,” says Sudhir Mudur, the project’s principal investigator and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. “We want to combine the people and skills from cinema, theatre, video and TV production with programming and 3D graphics. That’s what we discovered the industry needs.”

To his knowledge, there isn’t a program like it in Canada. The closest is at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, where they offer a master’s in ET. Mudur and his three project collaborators and colleagues — Peter Grogono, a professor emeritus, and Miao Song and Serguei Mokhov, both affiliate assistant professors — used the CIF for industry outreach and to determine exactly what the workforce needs in an ET program. Then, of course, they had to design the program.

From Pixar to TIFF

Miao Song networked with over 100 international industry contacts, including Pixar, Other Ocean Interactive, 31st Street Studio, The Toronto International Film Festival and Montreal’s Moment Factory.

“The first step is to establish business contacts and generate awareness,” says Song, who has a bachelor’s degree in theatre direction and performance from China, plus a master’s degree in computer science and a PhD from Concordia’s Individualized Program. “Then we know what the core courses should be and what internships are possible. It’s not all about making video games. It’s just as much about multi-media theatre installations.”

Using the CIF and part of her own funding, Song paid students to participate in a pilot E.T. project. They did a successful stage installation in February for an interactive performance by the Montreal Center of Chinese Culture and Arts at the Salle Pierre-Mercure in UQAM’s Centre Pierre-Péladeau.

“It was very promising, but we realize how hard it is to launch a cross-faculty program,” says Song. “Instead, we’re going to start by bootstrapping it to our own department and faculty. Then, we hope to find a way to move forward with more multi-disciplinary aspects and co-teaching.”

Learn more about the Curriculum Innovation Fund.


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