Zhang Receives Murphy Grant to Develop Space & Programs for Undergraduate Students in Design, Technology & Research

Prof. Haoqi Zhang has received a $35,000 Murphy Grant to develop space & programs for undergraduate students in his EECS 395/495 - Design, Technology, and Research (DTR) course.

Prof. Haoqi Zhang has received a $35,000 Murphy Grant to develop space & programs for undergraduate students in his EECS 395/495 - Design, Technology, and Research (DTR) course.

Murphy GrantDesign, Technology, and Research (DTR) is a CS and Segal Research driven learning initiative that empowers undergraduates to drive cutting-edge research through the development of systems that shape new experiences with people and technology. As a program and model for undergraduate research, DTR prepares students for careers in engineering, design, innovation, and research by providing authentic practice.

The effort embodies McCormick’s mission to engage students in the creation, exploration, and application of engineering and scientific principles to solve challenging problems, produce new knowledge, and advance society. DTR also aligns with Northwestern’s strategic focus on Design and the advancement of inventive and rigorous models of education.

“With the Murphy Society Grant, my goal is to bring the benefits of DTR to a broad audience of undergraduate students”, said Prof. Zhang.

McCormick undergraduates participate in DTR through fast-paced, quarter-long programs. Students work with mentors to identify a direction of research, explore and iterate over designs, prototype at varying fidelities, build working systems, conduct evaluative studies, and report findings through conference publications. As a cohort, each week students demo their prototypes, provide and receive feedback, and help each other resolve technical challenges.

DTR adapts and extends agile development and design-based research practices with scrums, sprints, studio critique, design logos, and pair research, Students embraced these practices and praised their effectiveness for promoting productivity, learning, and collaboration.

DTR is structured to realize McCormick undergraduates’ potential for developing novel technologies and creative solutions through design, engineering, and research. By giving students the independence to drive their own projects while providing the program structure, mentoring, and community to promote productivity, learning, and collaboration, DTR develops students’ innovation self-efficacy and positively impacts undergraduates’ contribution to design, innovation, and research.

design, research, engineering, and communicationIn addition to learning outcomes and products, DTR provides students with practical experiences in design, research, engineering, and communication, connects students to a larger community of peers and researchers, and serves as a scalable model for undergraduate design-based research. Students develop strong work ethics to complement their technical abilities, as well as design and communication skills.

The origins of the class began with an idea by Prof. Zhang to search for undergraduate students to mentor and in turn, advance his own research. He subsequently sent out 8 emails to undergraduates, which to his shock and amazement, generated 8 responses (5 sophomores, 3 juniors).

In the pilot course over a two-month period during Spring Quarter 2013, these eight undergraduates produced seven working prototypes, conducted six user studies, and submitted five papers to CSCW, the top conference in social computing.

Prof. Zhang stated, "Undergraduates can expand and push faculty research, but the challenge has been compelling them to collaboratively scale their research for Faculty involvement. A question that we're hoping to answer is: What ingredients of expertise do students need to push their research to scale and complete better work?"

Prof. Zhang stresses research, technology, and design in addition to productivity, learning, and collaboration, as the fundamental building blocks for his program. The students methods of working on their projects, include: prototype, test, iterate.

Students usually start with 10-20 class selected topics, before they decide which projects to pursue. Prof. Zhang remarked, "What are the real world applications? How do we challenge the impossible? I believe in self advocacy: Design what you believe!"

Joshua HibschmanEECS Ph.D. Student Joshua Hibschman whose project involves analyzing Agile software methodology, said, "This class provides a lot of hands on experience for my innovative design aspirations. Unlike many labs or classes I've previously taken, we're more extreme in our collaborations. Every week we design, build, and receive feedback from our peers, as well as our instructor."

Prof. Zhang ascertains that the spiral model works best for the current Fall Quarter 2014 incarnation of his class, which sees the class roster at 12 undergraduates and 4 Ph.D. students.

"How do we get experts to participate in topics that they are unfamiliar with? This class narrows down students ideas to find practical solutions with the best real world applications available. We start by doing, while granting students the independence to pursue their own interests, in addition to individual mentorship along with feedback from fellow peers. By the end of the course, we have a functional prototype to accompany a written study, so to propel the students to continue their projects", said Prof. Zhang.

As a learning initiative, DTR supports students’ development as designers, researchers, engineers, and communicators and aligns with McCormick’s vision of fostering whole-brain engineers.

  • Design - Students reported learning a wide range of design skills including paper prototyping, iterative design, and user testing. They found that the weekly demo, critique sessions, and frequent user testing “provided valuable feedback in terms of usability and design” and that “[user testing forced me to] step back and learn how users actually use the things I build when I am not there to tell them how to use it.”
  • Research - Students reported learning a wide range of research skills including framing a problem, designing a study and experiment, preparing an IRB application, conducting a user study, interviewing and surveying, analyzing results, and writing an academic paper.
  • Engineering - Students reported learning a wide range of engineering skills, which included learning about new technologies and collaborative problem solving. Students built on the latest web, mobile, and wearable technologies. Specific technical skills students gained include iOS development, modern web programming languages and frameworks such as HTML5/CSS/ JQuery/Node.js/Meteor/Parse, Android and Google Glass development, video streaming, asynchronous programming, working with external APIs, server management, and databases.
  • Communication - Students reported developing their communication skills through demoing, presenting to a larger group of researchers, and writing an academic paper.

The concept of innovation self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish tasks necessary for innovation), which researchers are finding is critical for innovation, is also emphasized and encouraged in DTR students.

McCormick and Northwestern’s mission is to develop undergraduate students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical reasoning, and creativity through research. Building novel technologies and experiences is both a core focus of DTR and its hook for introducing students to research and scientific inquiries. Feedback has pointed to DTR providing support an positive increase in undergraduate students attitude towards research.

An example of this would be the video series, "Big Talk", created by Kalina Silverman, which is a social experiment/video project that dares to ask meaningful questions to people during random encounters on the street.

Silverman remarked of her class experience, thus far, "Being a Journalism major, I've always held an outsiders interest in computer science, but through DTR, I've learned that everything is connected and have been able to better hone my concept and turn it into a reality."

Retention and recruitment for DTR has been high. All eight students from the Spring Quarter pilot have returned to participate in DTR for Fall Quarter (100% retention) along with three new students who have joined the program.

From survey results, students note that DTR helped them understand the spectrum of research processes better and that it's not just about designing the system, but instead, it's the process in how you got there and how well the project performed with users. Students learned that research and design goes beyond just building a system, which in turn helped students overcome obstacles that have gradually allowed them to become better researchers.

Students in DTR embraced research as a collaborative process, noting that they liked the culture of the lab, the group dynamic, and the sense of community.

Kevin Chen"I appreciate Prof's Zhang's approach to teaching. While I find the collaborative learning environment to be stimulating, I was ultimately lured in by Google Glass," said, Kevin Chen. His project involves exploring ways to better create systems, such as searching for methods to make prototyping more feasible to perform. Chen's next step will be to to conduct user testing of a sample group of 30 participants, including 2 sets of users. His goal is to extend the use of paper as an application and other low fidelity concepts.

The future of DTR courses look bright. Based on students’ feedback, this fall Prof. Zhang will add a mid-week scrum, focus on refining hypotheses earlier in the quarter, and involve more faculty and graduate student mentors during demo and critique.

The goal is to establish DTR as a long-term program for supporting undergraduate design, research, and innovation. DTR is a multi-year project with planned expansions at Northwestern and to other top institutions each year.

The mid-term goal is to expand the program to include 3-4 core faculty to reach 20+ students each quarter in a year, and to 10-12 core faculty across institutions nationally in two to three years, reaching 50-100 students each quarter.

Both internally and externally, the program’s expansion exemplifies McCormick and Northwestern as a leader in undergraduate innovation, design, and research