Sunday, December 14, 2008

College students in Wisconsin, Scotland design games for kids with CP

From The Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, Wis.:

Marquette University business students Katrina Lord and Melanie Fraenkel presented their final team project at the university's Raynor Library on Dec. 11, flashing PowerPoint slides and taking questions from a professor.

On the other side of the world, their four teammates from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland presented aspects of the project via videoconferencing (pictured).

"We had some communication challenges," Lord said to her teammate on a video screen. "We're an ocean apart. . . . But in the end, it was great. It was within scope, it was completed on time and in budget."

In a world where technical work is increasingly outsourced overseas, today's American business students need to learn how to work globally - overcoming language barriers, time zones and cultural differences.

That's why students in Marquette assistant professor Monica Adya's class manage a virtual team project with student engineers and designers in Scotland, with the goal of designing games for children with cerebral palsy.

The Marquette students develop a strategy and keep the process on schedule through videoconference meetings and e-mail. Their teammates in Scotland have to design the toy, figuring out how it would work, what materials it would include and how much it would cost to produce.

The final product is a technical design and a plan for producing and marketing it. The students don't actually build the games, but that's something engineers on the Glasgow side may do in the future, Adya said.

"We're doing what we would do in a traditional project management class, but everything has a global element to it," Adya said. "Language can be a barrier. The fact that there were terrorist attacks in India can have an impact. . . . Glasgow made the daylight savings shift a week before we did. . . . These were risks they may have not anticipated."

The idea was born when Adya; George Corliss, a professor in the College of Engineering; and Kate Kaiser, an associate professor of management, met with a group of chief information officers from Milwaukee corporations.

Many said they were looking for two skill sets in future hires: First, they wanted graduates who could manage complex projects that touched on a multitude of disciplines. Second, they wanted people who could work with global teams.

"The systems businesses use to run . . . operations are larger and more complicated, and more importantly, they typically run across business boundaries," said Philip Loftus, chief information officer at Aurora Health Care. "You need very good interpersonal and influencing skills - not just technical skills."

And the scope is global. In his previous position at pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline, Loftus dealt with a global manufacturing system with plants in more than 100 countries. Project managers had to make sure each plant manufactured to the same quality standards.

Adya, Corliss and Kaiser won a grant from the 3M Foundation to develop the curriculum for a new course. It wouldn't just be Marquette's first undergraduate project management class - it also would incorporate real-world global experience.

Adya's class initially focused on her own area, information technology - a field that has seen exponential growth in global outsourcing.

Marquette initially partnered with a school in India. But this year, Adya worked with Bryan Temple, a professor at Glasgow Caledonian.

Because he has a 6-year-old grandson with cerebral palsy, Temple is always looking for games that can be both educational and entertaining for children with the disability. Adya and Temple agreed the students would design a game that would improve motor or cognitive skills for children with cerebral palsy.

Marquette business students paired off in teams of two, with teams of four or five from Glasgow. Together, they agreed on goals and objectives. Then they created a schedule for delivering certain pieces and a plan for how often they would videoconference or e-mail each other. They tried to predict potential problems and craft contingency plans.

One team created a memory game. Another group imagined a Lite-Brite-type board game. Lord and Fraenkel's team devised a game that connects a robotic arm to a wheelchair. Parents can use it to teach both math and motor skills.

The challenges abounded. Although the Glasgow students speak English, many are international students and have accents that were difficult for the Marquette students to understand.

Lord and Fraenkel's team faced technical difficulties, too. The Glasgow students posted several documents and designs using a software system the Marquette students couldn't access. Some of their videoconferences were cut short because of technological failures.

They also learned lessons that had little to do with cultural issues or time zones.

"We didn't get the engineers' input on the project early enough," Fraenkel said. "Then we slowly realized we needed them a third of the way through the project."

In the end, they devised a game that got a positive reception from Adya during the final presentation.

It's that kind of real-world learning that Loftus said will make students all the more valuable to future employers.

"I think that's great because it gives them a chance to have some hands-on experience and a sense of what goes wrong in projects," he said.