ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Interdisciplinary design

Eclectic projects boost ECEs' adaptability

Tom Martin (Photograph by Kelsey Kradel)

Tom Martin advises a variety of interdisciplinary student design projects. One lesson students learn: how design differs across disciplines.

In a single day, Tom Martin, an associate professor of ECE, might be involved with a laptop orchestra, a fashion show curtain, and an intelligent jump suit. In all these efforts, he’s engaging undergraduate ECE students in a world far from engineering.

“The most interesting ideas come alive at the margins between disciplines,” he says — and as a pervasive computing expert, much of his work is at those margins.

“Communications is often more important than the technical aspects.”

Pervasive computing involves integrating intelligent or “smart” functions into everyday objects and activities. He believes that for ECEs to be successful in pervasive computing, they must break through the cultural mindset of engineering and understand how professionals in business, design, and other fields operate. At the same time, students in other disciplines must be exposed to the engineering processes.

To encourage such cultural breakthroughs, he has a long-standing collaboration with faculty members across the university, from marketing, industrial design, and engineering education, to music and architecture. Each year, he is involved in at least one interdisciplinary design project with industrial design and marketing, plus additional ad hoc teams.

The faculty collaborations with industrial design and marketing first came together on a project in 2006 for a student design contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble (P&G). In 10 weeks, the students were tasked with designing an intelligent product that P&G could sell to elderly customers. The Virginia Tech team was one of four selected by the firm out of 50 submissions.


The laptop orchestra involved embedding six speakers and three amplifiers into a former IKEA salad bowl. The project goal was to get the cost to $700 or below.

The team developed a set of products related to pet care. “Studies show that the elderly do better with pets around, but they are at a time in life when caring for pets may be more difficult,” Martin says. The students developed the Pet Care Awareness System (PAwS) that would help the elderly remember tasks and assist with some routine aspects.

In the end, P&G did not name a winner from the four teams, but Virginia Tech did well, Martin recalls. “We had people crying at one point during a video the students made showing the elderly with their pets. People were wiping their eyes.”

The P&G team involved 12 students from five departments, including ECE, industrial and systems engineering, marketing, industrial design, and art. A faculty advisor from each department and an advisor from the veterinary school served as mentors.

Working with others from such diverse backgrounds requires bridging cultures, Martin says. “We take these students from different disciplines and they use the same words, but they don’t understand what each other is saying. It’s like moving to a different country and learning a new language.”

He and Edward Dorsa and Ronald Kemnitzer of industrial design decided to coordinate another design project the following year, involving just computer engineers and industrial design students. “We thought that perhaps the P&G experience had too many different types of students and too many cultural gaps to bridge,” Martin explains.

The project was part of a special studies course in which 11 CPEs and 10 industrial design students explored pervasive computing for improving safety on construction sites.

For fall 2008, the faculty team wanted to add a business perspective and worked with Eloise Coupey from marketing, who had also worked on the P&G project. “We needed marketing,” Martin says. He uses the iPod as an analogy for the situation.“There were MP3 players before the iPod, and one could argue that they looked cool. The real kicker in the iPod success wasn’t the technology, but the business model.” Apple’s iTunes store, which enabled people to buy a song for 99¢, is a major part of what made the iPod successful, he maintains.

For the 2008 project, seven ECE students, seven industrial design students and seven marketing students developed concepts for making dorm rooms more intelligent for students with disabilities.

“It was important to us to have equal numbers of students from each discipline,” Martin says. “That way, the team wasn’t dominated by one group or the other. That semester went very well.”

The fall 2008 project was also a more formal experience; the team had enlisted the help of Lisa McNair of engineering education to help study and improve the learning experience. McNair found the team some dedicated space, incorporated team-building experiences early on and helped strengthen the communications links between the students from different backgrounds. “For interdisciplinary teams like these, communications is often as important as the technical aspects,” Martin explains.

Helmet design

This past fall, 2009, the faculty team tried a different strategy. Instead of providing the students with a wide-open space to explore, “we wanted them to redesign the firefighter helmet and bring it into the 21st century. We presented a similar situation to having a customer come in with a specific problem.” The project did not go as well as expected, but the faculty team is reviewing the project to make adjustments for future projects.

The team recently received a $396,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study and develop improved pedagogical methods for teaching students how to collaborate in interdisciplinary environments. “We started this collaboration because we were interested in working across disciplines,” Martin says. “It’s important for engineers to be well prepared for this kind of work and we’re trying to improve how we teach them these skills.”

In addition to the ongoing annual projects, Martin helps mentor ad hoc interdisciplinary teams. Last summer, he teamed with Ivica Ico Bukvic of the Department of Music, Eric Standley of the School of Visual Arts, and a group of students to develop a laptop orchestra based on Linux. The orchestra, called L2Ork, debuted in December 2009.

“There are other laptop orchestras around,” Martin says, “but they are goldplated. Our goal was to get the cost at or below $700.” The team used inexpensive notebook computers and IKEA salad bowls that serve as omnidirectional sound sources — each sporting six speakers. The notebooks are networked and the operators use Wiimotes and nunchuks to control loudness, pitch, sound color and more.

Building the speakers was a feat, Martin acknowledges. “Normal amplifiers drive two speakers at a time and we needed to physically fit three amp boards in each salad bowl.” The students formed a production line to build 18 of the speakers and each student learned to solder and desolder in the process.

In another project, for spring 2010, Martin and Paola Zellner Bassett from the School of Architecture and Design are mentoring a team of students who are developing a curtain for a fashion show that will feature lights that track the models on both sides. “The students are using inexpensive strands of LED lights sewn on the curtain fabric,” he explains.

“We still aren’t sure the control system will work,” he says, adding that the faculty advisors get used to not knowing if projects will come together at the end. “We’re as much interested in the process as the result,” he says. “The students still went through a process and if they made progress working across disciplines, then we succeeded.”

Cultural Differences

Conceptual drawings on a whiteboard

The faculty team has an NSF grant to study and improve how to teach students interdisciplinary collaboration.

Working across disciplines like computer engineering and art is not easy, according to Martin, and the faculty mentors have learned much with each successive project.

“We’re trying to break through cultural barriers that get established in the different disciplines,” he says. “If we want engineers to be innovators and to help solve society’s needs, we need to give students true interdisciplinary experiences.”

One of the basic cultural differences between engineering and liberal arts students is the comfort level with unstructured exploration in “wide-open problem spaces,” he says. “Ours is a very unstructured process. We start out saying, ‘here’s the problem area, what are the opportunities to make a new product?’” In his experience, the industrial design students are very comfortable in that situation and the computer engineers much less so. The computer engineers have not had to deal with such a high level of uncertainty before in their classes. “A lot of team building happens during this exploration phase,” and getting all the students involved is critical to success, he says.

In most engineering courses, the students are given a specification for a design and told to build something that meets the spec, he says. “We also find that the engineers want to drill down almost instantly and say, ‘here’s the widget,’ when we don’t even know yet if that’s the right widget to build.”

Even the experience of evaluation presents differences, he notes. “The engineers have an expectation of how their grade will be calculated and that grade is important. The firms that recruit engineers have certain GPA expectations and the students want to meet that. Whereas, the industrial design students are building a portfolio and grades are not as important.”

The faculty advisors have learned that even the space where the team works is important to a team’s success — and that dedicated, unstructured space works best, so team members can leave materials in one place, move around between groups. The faculty team discovered that being in a neutral place was also important, so that one set of students isn’t intimidated while the other is comfortably at home.

The first year, during the P&G competition, the team worked in space at the College of Arcitecture and Urban Studies that none of the students had experienced before. The next year, the team started the semester in a classroom with desks. “That really wasn’t working,” Martin says. So in the middle of the semester the team moved to the industrial design studio space in Burchard Hall. “Although it was more open and dedicated, the non-architecture and design students felt less like they owned the space.” The most recent teams have worked in “somewhat dedicated” space provided by engineering education, and although it’s engineering, it’s not the student’s disciplinary home and is serving well as neutral space.

It’s not just the students who learn through the team efforts; the faculty advisors also struggle at times with the gaps. “It’s hard as a faculty member. I’m going to walk in each time and have no idea what I’ll be asked or what I’ll be called to contribute.”

It’s also hard to cross disciplines organizationally, he says. “The one time we ran the project as a special studies course instead of independent studies, we decided it was too difficult to develop a single course description that could satisfy both colleges.”

There is a language barrier at the faculty level as well, he notes. “If you really want to watch a fun argument, tell somebody in industrial design that engineers do design,” Martin suggests. “We had to dig way down to reach an understanding on this. The industrial designers are certainly more focused on people than the designers in ECE. But I believe there are good designers in both camps; that good designers have an appreciation for elegance and know how to use just the right amount and not too much. Good designers know that you never get anything for free and they appreciate the right balance of elements to meet a set of design constraints.”