Collaborative Effort for MDP

VINCENT CHOW/New University

UC Irvine’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) has expanded its offerings with the launch of the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP), which meshes together students and faculty of different disciplines in hopes of complementing, supplementing and supporting innovative, collaborative design mechanisms.

Founded by Professor G.P. Li and Said Shokair, MDP is a collaborative effort between the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and UROP. The result is a program unique to UCI.

Li, the director of Calit2, came up with the idea to broaden the undergraduate student experience by offering an opportunity to participate in multidisciplinary research after identifying the crucial role that these experiences will play for future success in all organizations. Calit2 is a two-campus multidisciplinary research institute, with divisions at UCI and UC San Diego. Its mission is to emphasize the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration and provide support to this unique research approach. Graduate students have participated in Calit2 projects since its inception and Li is thrilled to expand opportunities to undergraduates.

“Now, the world is rapidly changing and affecting the ways we conduct business and interact with people,” Li said. “So we have to look beyond the traditional approach. We want to expand our programs to provide a challenging and rewarding experience to undergraduate students. We hope this program will encourage innovative thinking that promotes student interaction across the schools on campus.”

Calit2 and UROP have previously collaborated by creating the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Information Technology (SURF-IT), which allows undergraduates to conduct faculty-mentored research, albeit in a standard, more conventional manner.

“We were hungry to explore how undergraduate students from different disciplines would collaborate in teams,” said Shokair, the UROP director. “For our second project together, we wanted to provide a unique model within our resources to enhance university education and prepare undergraduates for the real world.”

Li and Shokair created MDP, a program that gives undergraduates the chance to fulfill their degree requirements and interact with faculty and students from departments and schools outside of their majors.

What they really stress, however, is the “D,” which stands for “Design,” a term they define as the “creativity behind innovation.”

The first step required at least two faculty members from different disciplines to propose a project. Nineteen projects are featured this year. The projects are posted and the online application is available to upper-division students in good standing. Students identify their top five projects and provide a written personal statement. In MDP’s inaugural year, 120 student applications were received. Faculty mentors review the applications and make the student selections.

Once the teams are formed, Calit2 and UROP will equip them with resources and space in the Calit2 building. The MDP lab will deploy technologies developed at UCI that will create a virtual interacting and meeting space for the students and mentors. Not only does this expand the student’s experience, but it also provides a living laboratory for UCI researchers’ inventions.

Calit2 has agreed to contribute two-thirds of the total cost for each team, while the other one-third is financed by applying for grants and external funding.

“I view the financial commitment as an investment in the future of our institute and its mission to promote multidisciplinary research and education,” Li said.

Seminars will be offered via an initial training session, but also throughout the program. Faculty will participate as presenters, while  students will also direct seminars of their own.

Additionally, some professor mentors will offer undergraduates the opportunity to enroll in a 199-like research course, which ranges from one to five units per quarter.

“But this isn’t a class,” Li said. “It is a design. Students have fresh minds and can come up with ideas and solutions faculty may not have thought of yet. Creativity acts as the motivation factor and lets them harness their ideas and learn effective communication protocols. They will be held accountable for specific tasks and everybody will have a critical voice, but this is not a cookie-cutter project — they will have to learn to modify as they go.”

Come May, each team will showcase their work at the UCI Undergraduate Research Symposium. They will also be invited to other events sponsored by Calit2, which will possibly include community members and representatives from corporations.

UROP and Calit2 may even create an entire separate event altogether, which would showcase the uniqueness of MDP and publically show the advantages of implementing team multidisciplinary projects.
With this year acting as the “pilot program,” Li and Shokair hope that it will help generate outside donations. Currently, Calit2 is using part of their internal budget to help finance MDP and must fundraise to continue to offer support and growth for the program.

In the future, they hope to offer students access to electronic white boards and HIPerWalls, which are extremely helpful for collaborative research. They also want to add in training sessions that will provide tips on how to work as a team, address conflicts, manage teams and projects and remain within budgets.

Even though MDP is at a stage of infancy, many professors have already expressed interest in it, asking if they can be partnered with another faculty member to participate next year. Later on, Li and Shokair project that they can allow students to propose their own projects and let professors pick which designs they want to help mentor.

In the end, Li and Shokair ultimately aim to enlarge an undergraduate’s vision and scope of work because they believe that mutual learning is powerful. They hope that MDP will enrich the way students learn at a university by giving them the skills that cannot be learned through a textbook or the standard frame of a class.

“Students learn about leadership, communication, decision making and, most importantly, how to learn efficiently and quickly,” Shokair said. “The beauty of MDP is in promoting diversity on all fronts.”