Enthusiasm, Motivation and the Virtual Corporation
It takes experience in a variety of fields to build a maglev track. Left: Virtual Corporation students are building a 20-foot-long prototype of a switched-reluctance maglev track. From the left are: Graduate Assistant Mike Kefauver (EE), Yang Forjindam (ME, '98), Team Leader Stephen Fields (ISE, '99), and Shane Lefkowitz (CpE, '01).
If student enthusiasm is any indication, Virginia Tech's virtual corporation may prove to be the ultimate in multidisciplinary projects.
The virtual corporation program is a two-semester-old program in which student-run divisions design real products, systems, and technology, based on actual market conditions. The virtual corporation represents as closely as possible the social context, personnel positions, departmental functions, and structure of commercial engineering corporations. To date, two divisions have involved more than 100 students from 19 disciplines ranging from psychology to engineering.
The students work in the virtual corporation for credit. Faculty advisors serve as chief executive officers and consultants, while undergraduates are corporate officers and "employees." Professor Krishnan Ramu serves as overall faculty coordinator and CEO. Graduate students are employed as technical advisors and resource persons.
For many students involved, enthusiastic is an understatement. "It's addictive," is a common comment. "Virtual Corporation gets people excited," said Brian MacCleery (EE, '99), a corporate vice president. "We tend to spend time at it - and it's not easy to breeze through."
"This class is by far the one I've enjoyed the most and gotten the most out of," said John Karanikolas, (CpE, '98), a vice president. "It's so much fun. We're required to work about 150 hours per semester. At the halfway point of the semester, I've already put in 175 hours - you don't do that unless you're having a ball."
Time spent with the virtual corporation might be fun, but it is hard work, as well as academically and personally challenging. Not only are many students working for the first time with people outside their discipline, but they are also learning and working with technical knowledge generally considered to be beyond their academic level. For example, English and psychology majors are delving into the mysteries of Java, while a sophomore computer engineering student simulates a switched-reluctance maglev system on AutoCAD, and a marketing student works closely with software developers to design future product features. Undergraduate engineers are working with concepts typically covered in graduate-level courses, including finite element analysis, control system topology, and other higher-level engineering concepts.
Although the divisions employ a virtual corporate structure, they are developing products that are real. One group is working in the field of medical informatics, developing medical information systems, and the other is delving into transit issues and technology.
"We have a good time, produce a lot, and learn a lot at the same time," says Brian Jaeger (CS, '98) DISC vice president of product development. Shown here are the DISC corporate officers. From left, Nance Koglin (MKT MGT, '98), vice president of business, Jaeger, John Karanikolas (CpE, '98), vice president of operations, and Shadat Mahmud (CpE, '98) president.
The Distributed Information Systems Corporation (DISC) is developing an information system for the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, that will have wide application in human hospitals, as well. The current system is being designed using an innovative three-tiered relational database structure, and will integrate data ranging from paper notes to real-time monitoring images with on-site hospital and remote access for veterinarians.
The second division, commonly referred to as PERTS (Personal Rapid Transit Systems), is building a prototype magnetic levitation system. This year students are developing a 20-foot-long, microprocessor-controlled prototype of an electric propulsion system using a switched-reluctance linear actuator - a proprietary development and the first of its kind. A magnetic levitation system will be incorporated in the Fall of 1998. PERTS is also conducting market research for dual-mode rapid transit systems, and developing a simulation of Norfolk seaport cargo movement, to help improve efficiency as the seaport expands.
During fall '97, their first full semester of operation, both groups were involved in market and technology research. They more than doubled in size for the spring semester, divided into focused teams, and continued their development work. During the process, they have encountered many of the challenges faced by start-ups everywhere, including rapid reorganization, massive recruiting efforts - and even finding out that a favored product name had already been trademarked by another firm.
However, none of the challenges have dulled their enthusiasm. "This is just whetting our appetite," commented Brian Jaeger (CS, '98), DISC vice president of product development.
Brainchild of Department Head Leonard Ferrari, the virtual corporation program is designed to provide students with interdisciplinary, hands-on project design, development, and management experience, along with problem-solving, leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
According to the students involved, the virtual corporation does all that and more. Students cite as benefits that their involvement has given them more motivation in their other course work, an edge in the job market, insight into teamwork and persons from other disciplines, and even the opportunity to developing lasting friendships.
MacCleery, vice president of the high speed ground transportation group for PERTS, is excited about the technical background that his teammates are acquiring. "Virtual corporation is expanding our technical knowledge and motivation," he said. "When we're working together, we see what other people know and can do, which encourages us all to expand our own base. I've even heard students say they can't wait to take fields or dynamics!"
He explained that much of the technical work the undergraduates are involved with is at the graduate level - particularly since they are using switched reluctance motors for the maglev system instead of the conventional linear induction motor systems. "As undergraduates, most of us aren't knowledgeable enough to develop these concepts ourselves, but we're learning it. We're digesting it as we go. We're able to learn what we need to because we have the experience and expertise of the graduate students as resources. It's very much like in a co-op job, in which your advisor starts you on a project and checks back periodically."
Stephen Fields (ISE, '99), team leader for the PERTS track design and implementation group, believes that students are also gaining a deeper understanding of material they have covered in their undergraduate course work. "For example, the MEs knew in general about the mechanical properties of our track, but had to research the specifics. And the EEs understood the magnetic and electrical forces that we are working with. But, again, they needed to figure out specifically what was going on with our system," he said.
Moe Edjlali (CpE, '98), director of rapid prototyping for DISC, agrees that students are cementing skills they've acquired in other courses. "We're learning the value of comparing competing design approaches and technologies, such as Java and ActiveX," he explained. "While gaining new technical skills in these areas, we are all learning to deal with significant real-world trade-offs. Our employees are also recognizing the importance of strictly following IEEE development standards in order to ensure delivery of a high-quality product. Before, we knew there were standards, but now we have taken them to heart," he said.
Observations like MacCleery's, Field's, and Edjlali's are exactly what should be happening, according to Scott Midkiff, faculty advisor and chief executive officer of DISC. "The virtual corporation program is set up to challenge students with respect to their own disciplines," he said. "It's an academic program. The students face problems that build on the knowledge they have gained through their studies to date. It's not sufficient for students just to use what they've come in with. We expect them to learn and contribute new things - and they are evaluated on this in rigorous ways."
The Multidisciplinary Advantage
Working with individuals and teams from other disciplines has proved an eye-opener and one of the greatest benefits for the virtual corporation students. Students have had to overcome preconceptions of students studying other fields, overcome a language barrier, and appreciate different problem-solving methods. Most importantly, they say they have all learned much from students in other fields.
"I've learned a lot about how to deal with people with different backgrounds," said Karanikolas, vice president of operations for DISC. "As an engineer, I've become accustomed to using many technical terms in my speech. When speaking to students in other majors, I have to remind myself that they don't have the same technical knowledge base that I do. In order to bridge this communication gap, I've learned to choose my words carefully, and explain terms that may be unfamiliar to the listener."
Shadat Mahmud (CpE, '98), president of DISC, explained how the software development teams employ people from many backgrounds. "Ours is a software product, and people from engineering, science, and business can do the coding. We've seen that students from other disciplines approach problems and analyze situations differently. This exposure ultimately makes us more creative," he explained.
Mahmud summed up what many students have learned from each other. "Marketing and communications majors have taught us how to make professional presentations, and how much precision is optimal. CS majors have taught us coding standards. The engineers have taught us how to apply our engineering process to solve a problem. The psychology majors have helped us develop quality assurance and human resources. These are all perspectives that I wouldn't have gotten in a traditional classroom," he said.
Even with different work styles, the student teams have functioned remarkably well, sometimes even surprising the participants. "I was really surprised that the teams have gotten tight and are working miraculously well," reported Jaeger, the DISC vice president of product development. "There have been no conflicts on the teams this semester. They've gotten along great. No individual stood out, even though we have a mixed group of majors," he said.
MacCleery, the PERTS vice president, attributed the strong teams to student responsibility. "In a standard class environment, it's just a grade," he explained. "Here we have eight to 10 teams working together. If one team fails to meet its goals, it hurts all of the other teams and the entire corporation. Nobody can get away with only giving 80 percent," he said.
Dr. Rick Mills, faculty advisor and chief operating officer for DISC, agreed. "The students are learning they can't complete their job unless somebody else is doing theirs," he said. "Also, I've been genuinely surprised at the level of peer accountability. If students on the teams see that others are not working, they'll pull them aside and say, 'you know you can do better.' They don't immediately go to the director, or anybody higher up. They deal with it on their own level."
What is the biggest benefit to the students involved? Many cite the opportunity to work on something long term, and real. Others cite the advantages of working on strong multidisciplinary teams with others from different backgrounds. Still others believe that their virtual corporation experience will give them a jump start in their careers, because they've already experienced and learned how to operate in a corporate environment.
"The most important thing I've learned," said Jaeger, "is the interaction with people, managing people, and communicating with people. I haven't had the opportunity to work in such a great team environment. I've had classes with teams of two or three, where the problem was very defined. Here we have to deal with uncertainty and need a great deal of communication and interaction."
Karanikolas also said interpersonal skills were an important lesson. "The biggest thing I've learned is how to deal with people, from the perspective of team leader and colleague. I've learned how to read people better and that people respond differently to how they are approached. That's something you can only learn with experience. Some of the technical skills I'm learning in school might become obsolete very quickly, but my interpersonal skills will last forever. I'm learning how to work," he said.
MacCleery summed up the feelings of many students by saying, "To me, it makes sense to have an environment at school that simulates a work environment. It's great to go through many of the experiences with the mentoring and encouragement of the faculty. It's not our careers on the line, but a learning experience."
Mills agreed that the lessons learned in the virtual corporation program are lasting. "When a student says, 'I've learned the importance of communications,' that response could be made about any course. In the virtual corporations, they really know what communications means. It's more of an experiential heart knowledge, rather than simply head knowledge."