Boosting Innovation with Multidisciplinary Design

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, January 28th, 2014 -- Eighty-four ambitious UC Irvine students have begun working on 19 cross-disciplinary projects as the popular Multidisciplinary Design Program kicks off its fourth year. MDP, first launched in 2011, is sponsored by Calit2 and UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. 

Shokair: "It's about taking initiative. The more you put into it, 
the more you get out." (Photos: Shellie Nazarenus)

Participants, known as MDP Fellows, work in teams on a diverse range of design projects focused on energy, the environment, healthcare and culture. Each team comprises several students and at least two faculty mentors from different schools. 

This year’s projects include platforms for learning English, aiding children who have autism, neural signaling, nanoscale human brain-computer interfaces and educational computer-based games. 

Other projects encompass wearable light sources, pressure-and-acceleration-sensing insoles, underserved women’s health literacy, homelessness, vestibular rehabilitation, aquaponics and genetic testing.

In addition to their design duties, the MDP Fellows attend workshops on project management, team building, conflict resolution and more.

MDP Fellows introduce themselves.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                This session’s undergraduates and graduate students were chosen from a pool of 126 applicants. They, and many of their mentors, attended an orientation last week that honed in on teamwork, communication, project planning and the importance of initiative.

“This is not a robotic process,” UROP director Said Shokair repeatedly told the students during the orientation. “The purpose of this program is to transform you, expand your knowledge, develop your skills, [make you] more sensitive to multidisciplinary endeavors and more competitive for whatever you want to do in the future.”

Shokair emphasized open-mindedness, expressing the sentiment that everyone in the room is unique. “Your job is to cherish that,” he said. “Keep your biases in check. Every discipline, every major, every point of interest is as valuable as yours.”

Shokair asked faculty mentor An Do, a neurology professor, to share words of wisdom.  Do urged the students to familiarize themselves with jargon from their teammates’ disciplines. “You’ve got to be able to understand what everyone is talking about,” he said. “You have to learn other vocabularies.”
Do also emphasized initiative. “You have to be willing to teach yourself.”

“The more effort you put into it the more you get out,” echoed Shokair, who also stressed division of labor, methods for improving teamwork and the importance of failure: “You won’t enjoy success unless you have failed a few times.” 

“This is an absolutely great experience,” mentor Lawrence Kulinsky told the student researchers. “First, because you get to fail. And second, because you get to succeed. This is how projects are done,” said the engineering professor.

Added Shokair: “I hate to tell you but sometimes universities do not prepare you for real life. We’re trying to change that.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration “is the future,” according to Calit2 Irvine Director G.P. Li. Even though students are segregated by majors in college, those silos usually disappear in the workforce. “In real life, there are no disciplines,” Li said. “It’s about what we can do together.”

The prime goal, he added, is to teach students the art of innovation. “We believe design is a process that will help solve problems. By going through the process you learn how to be innovative. This is the future of how we can transform our society and remain competitive in the world.”

Li: "We see multidisciplinary research as the future."

CalPlug manager Arthur Zhang spoke to the students about building a network to connect team members. “The success of your team depends on how strong a network you can build,” he said, with the effort requiring coordination of time, people, resources, budgets and more.

Zhang suggested a variety of communication tools, including Facebook, text, Gmail, calendaring apps and document-sharing services. “It’s pretty tough to be a [freeloader] when you’re part of a highly networked team,” he joked.

Other speakers included graduate student Cathy Tran, an MDP Fellow since 2012, whose team is developing a computer game to teach children about digestion; and professors and faculty mentors Wendy Goldberg and Yuqing Guo, whose teams are designing apps for children with autism. 
Tran shared her team’s experiences and recommended helpful apps like Doodle, Dropbox and Trillo to keep team members in sync. She also discussed the importance of ongoing feedback as projects progress. “You need to keep in mind who your consumer is,” she said. “When you bring kids into your development space and let them play with prototypes you find out pretty quickly what they like and don’t like, what they understand and don’t understand.”

Goldberg, from psychology and social behavior, and Guo, from nursing sciences, both conduct research on autism and credited MDP for opening the door to a partnership. “This gave us a way to channel our collaborative ideas,” said Goldberg.
Guo urged the students to “really seize this opportunity. Take an active role to get the most out of it. Meet other students, attend the presentations... you really have a chance to grow.”

In closing, Shokair reminded the students that the final responsibility for creating successful outcomes was theirs. “By your enthusiasm, by your initiative, and by delivering above and beyond [your mentors’] expectations, you make it a pleasure for them to mentor you and support you. The burden is on you.”