Interdisciplinary Product Development at UIC’s Innovation Center

On a Tuesday afternoon behind an inconspicuous façade on West Harrison Street, offices, labs, design studios, and meetings spaces all buzz with activity; medical students are rehearsing elevator pitches; engineers are discussing market research; design students are learning about construction technology; and Liautaud MBA students are overseeing a range of projects for outside firms who have come to UIC seeking solutions.

This is UIC’s Innovation Center, where Professor Jelena Spanjol and her colleagues direct the Interdisciplinary Product Development program, bringing together teams of student engineers, designers, and managers that partner with outside organizations to identify industry problems and create innovative solutions. This year, student teams are working with Caterpillar and Wilson Sporting Goods, as well as with the Department of Urology and the iMED program at the College of Medicine.

“The objective behind IPD is to prepare students for work on cross-functional teams,” says Spanjol. “Concept and research, for example, can mean very different things to an engineering student and a marketing student.” Spanjol and her colleagues are constantly teaching the student teams across the three domains of business, engineering, and design. Like the engineering and design students, MBAs leave the IPD program with vastly expanded knowledge of domains outside their area of expertise. MBAs also leave IPD with experience managing cross-functional teams. “MBAs can tell employers that they’ve led teams that brought together designers, engineers, and marketing professionals around the innovation challenges faced by today’s large companies,” says Spanjol. Innovation requires a different kind of management, she says, which requires MBAs to enable team members rather than command them.

Along with Professors Michael Scott and Stephen Melamed, Professor Spanjol implements curricula at the Innovation Center throughout the schoolyear. “The IPD program is a two-semester sequence, so once students make that commitment, the IPD faculty is constantly guiding them in all three fields. Students don’t merely go through a business sequence followed by an engineering sequence followed by a design sequence; every step of the process is truly interdisciplinary.” Spanjol and her fellow IPD faculty begin each year by working with outside companies to identify general areas of inquiry for the student teams. Once student teams jump in, faculty lead them through the stages of initial research, problem definition, solution development, ideation, and prototyping. The problem definition stage, says Spanjol, is a large part of what she teaches at the Innovation Center.

“MBAs deal with risk and uncertainty in choosing the best solution to a problem, and MBAs figure out how to optimize value around that solution,” Spanjol says. “Problem definition comes before all of this, because innovation begins with a discovery process. You are trying to see what is not evident in the market, you’re looking at research, you’re trying to validate hypotheses–in short, you’re trying to answer the question, ‘Is this really the problem?’ We try to teach students how important it is to spend ample time in the problem space before moving onto solutions.” In the business of innovation, everything begins by choosing the best problem to solve.

For more information about UIC’s Interdisciplinary Product Development program, including applications for students, visit ipd.uic.edu.