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Idea Factory: education program helping students to innovate

27 January 2021
Education innovation and creativity championed by engineering
Our award-winning multidisciplinary program Idea Factory helps engineering and marketing students innovate.

A collaboration between the Faculty of Engineering and the University of Sydney Business School in a new multidisciplinary learning format named the Idea Factory is providing students with advanced communication and intercultural skills that reflect the workplaces they will move into, improving their employability.

The format, which has seen over 300 participants since the first implementation in 2019, is a cooperative project between students of ELEC5518: IoT for Critical Infrastructures and MKTG6004: New Product Development.

The Idea Factory enables students from these two units to work together in groups and develop a commercial product from beginning to end – including market research, a business plan, prototype testing, and more. As part of the assessment, groups pitch their product innovation to a panel of teaching staff and experts across industries.

The Idea Factory has been shortlisted for the 2020 QS-Wharton Reimagine Education Awards, the world’s largest honour program for innovative pedagogies, in the category of Nurturing Employability.

The academic behind the program, Dr Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam (School of Electrical and Information Engineering), designed it to improve student engagement through collaboration with students from other disciplines, gaining work-related skills/experience and promoting entrepreneurialism.

The program helps engineering students grow their understanding of product commercialisation and compliment the real-world hands-on experiences they receive as a part of their degree.

“Our students are really smart and welcome new approaches to learning. We need to continue to develop strategies to fully unleash their potentials,” says Dr Shirvanimoghaddam.

Unit of Study surveys for ELEC5518 have shown high satisfaction levels, particularly in the development of interpersonal, communication and entrepreneurial skills.

ICane group project

ICane group project

ICane: a virtual cane for the vision-impaired

Jichao Leng was a Master of Engineering (Telecommunications Engineering) student when he enrolled in ELEC5518. He is now a PhD candidate in the Centre for IoT and Telecommunications within the School of Electrical and Information Engineering. His group developed ICane, an innovative smart device that assists the vision-impaired and their families with mobility and day-to-day activities.

The ICane provides independence to the vision-impaired through obstacle detection up to 5 metres. It also provides confidence to family members of the ICane users, with features such as an LTE and Wi-Fi network connection through the cloud, real-time GPS position, and abnormal state alarm so that loved ones may be alerted if the user requires assistance.

If you want users to accept a product, you must always think about the problem from the user’s perspective, and use technology to solve the problem. This involves public relations, user habits and other aspects that I would not have considered before this unit.
Jichao Leng, Master of Engineering student

“As an engineering student, I realised that I think about problems only from the technical level. However, in the real world, people don’t pay for technology directly. It is important to transform technology into products that are meaningful to the market. The marketing students have this kind of knowledge, and we learned a lot from them,” Jichao said.

Jichao believes that the Idea Factory was an important exercise which has enhanced his skills in other projects and prompted him to diversify his study.

“Compared to simply doing research, participating in practical application projects and collaborating with different people means I can learn more. I am currently completing a project at Westmead Children’s Hospital, ‘the COVID-2019 eGate health screening system’, as an IoT engineer. I’ve learned it is not enough to only consider technology,” he said.

Stella Qiu was a Master of Commerce student specialising in marketing when she enrolled in MKTG6004, also in the group that developed ICane. Since then, she has worked in a number of marketing roles and is currently a Junior Marketing Manager in the education sector.

Similar to Jichao, Stella noticed how important the collaborative aspect was to fostering high-quality project outcomes.

“When I do a project with business students, we focus on whether the idea was creative or attractive – in this project, the engineering students provided many practical and technical suggestions. It was similar to a real working environment," said Stella.

Written by Nicole Baxter.

Dr Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam

Dr Mahyar Shirvanimoghaddam
Teaching Fellow, Centre for IoT and Telecommunications
Academic profile