Partner and Prosper: The New Academic Paradigm

December 9, 2008 · by Brian F. Davies

As goes practice, so goes the academy. The University of Cincinnati serves as one example of how academia is drawing on collaboration to serve as the new model for design education.

As goes practice, so goes the academy. The University of Cincinnati serves as one example of how academia is drawing on collaboration to serve as the new model for design education.

As an academic model, “partner and prosper” is much more optimistic than “publish or perish.” And this new paradigm has economic, intellectual, and social rewards for students as vested, central collaborators with faculty and the larger institution. The University of Cincinnati and its College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) operate with partnership as one of the six principles in our strategic plan (along with citizenship, cultural competence, leadership, scholarship, and stewardship). In this context, the goal is to address complex issues and problems collaboratively, both within and beyond the boundaries of UC.

Joining the UC faculty in 2005, I was invited to partner with colleagues from industrial design, bio-medical design, and telesurgery on an interior design project for an international marine research vessel. That partnership led to a groundbreaking offering to undergraduate students, an experimental studio course on design for extreme environments, which finds interior design and architecture students working underwater to explore possibilities for alternative built environments. The extreme environments studio is a collaborative that has pulled in faculty from medicine, geology and psychology to work with those of us in the design fields.

The relationships among colleges at UC and with outside partners are indicative of an increased complexity in real-world problems that both graduates and undergraduates engage through their design education here.

Collaborative learning extends the capabilities of students beyond the assimilation of disciplinary knowledge, enabling them to generate meaningful new insights that influence innovative solutions. Incorporating that methodology into design curricula has broader educational implications, providing students with a transferable process that can be used in their diverse academic and professional encounters. The issues encountered in collaborative projects are indicative of new trajectories in university education that respond to the matrix of challenges facing students in our global community.

One example of a student-initiated partnership is the university’s solar house. UC’s participation in the 2007 Solar Decathlon was initiated by architecture students. Students from architecture, interior design, and engineering spent 18 months designing and constructing the house on campus. Before transporting the house to Washington, D.C., they were joined by students from graphic design, business, and journalism to strategize how to communicate the student-led effort and how best to display the house on the National Mall. The house received national media attention.

Prosperous Partnering

More than two dozen national and international companies have partnered with DAAP in their efforts to distinguish themselves in their respective industries. American Eagle sponsored a collaborative studio of product development, fashion design, and interior design students to imagine new opportunities in the competitive retail industry. Delta Airlines engaged industrial design, digital design, and business students to define an ideal travel experience beginning and ending beyond the airline terminal. Faculty at DAAP have partnered internationally with the Samsung Group and LG Electronics to innovate the design of electronics and consumer appliances. Twenty miles from the UC campus in Fernald, Ohio, DAAP faculty and students collaborated with each other, local citizenry, and federal agencies to help remediate a Cold War-era uranium foundry and establish in its place the Fernald Preserve Visitors Center.

A distinction of all these partnerships is that students’ solutions were responsible to an economic feasibility and to a desired user experience.

The university’s ability to form profitable design partnerships won UC recognition in the fall of 2007, when it became one of a handful of global programs to receive a PACE (Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education) award. The contribution of in-kind design and engineering computer tools (hardware and software) is valued commercially at $421 million and went to 44 programs internally, which were selected by a consortium of industry firms.

It was UC’s ongoing design and engineering project partnerships that garnered the PACE award. And it’s an award that is leading to additional opportunities. Design and engineering students are now working together with industry in the Midwest and Southeast to create environmentally sustainable auto designs, new consoles, and more.

Co-op Collaboration

UC is the founder of co-op education (more formally, cooperative education), having established the practice in 1906. Co-op requires students to alternate quarters or semesters in the classroom with quarters or semesters of professionally paid work related to their majors. Co-op is integral to the curricula of all UC architecture, interior, and industrial design undergraduates. As a result, students graduate with an average of about 18 months of professionally paid experience working on projects throughout the United States and overseas.

• UC houses the country’s largest co-op program at any public institution in the United States.

• Upon graduation, about 66 percent of UC co-op students receive job offers from their co-op employers.

• Currently, UC co-ops make as much as $32.88 per hour, with the average co-op pay at $14.25 per hour.

• In the current academic year, UC students university-wide are expected to co-op and to earn a collective $37 million.

In the co-op model, there is a direct reciprocal relationship: on-the-job training in exchange for aspiring new talent. One of the greatest values in partnerships between UC and businesses is nearly impossible to quantify — inspiration.

In one yearlong sponsored effort, 66 students from interior design, architecture, and product development explored new strategies in big-box retail, including integrating environmentally responsible innovations. At the end of each quarter, students presented their findings to the sponsor and forwarded their output to the next student group to expand and refine. In the process, every student presented to executives of a Fortune 500 retailer, with one of the studios presenting its recommendations directly to the CEO. At the request of our sponsoring partner, the students provided a design brief to the sponsor’s contracted design firm. This inverted the co-op relationship: Students provided direction to the masters. For our external partner, the DAAP students and faculty, along with contributors from the College of Business, served as neutral critic, an aspirational client, and an uninhibited think tank for both the sponsor and its design agency.

Past Partnerships Paved the Way

In the late 1960s, DAAP faculty were collaborating internally and externally in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and NASA to develop new products and architecture to protect service men and women and to enable successful space exploration. In the early 1990s, Dean Robert Probst spearheaded interdisciplinary projects as a faculty in graphic design with support from then Dean Jay Chatterjee. Probst’s partnerships included work for the city of Cincinnati and many local communities. Those projects later expanded to initiate the college’s network of corporate partnerships.

Dale Murray and Michaele Pride, respective directors of the School of Design and the School of Architecture and Interior Design, continue to seek new external relationships for the schools’ faculty and students. And we are all working in our classrooms, studios, and research centers to overcome such challenges to partnering as:

• Coordinating distinct and sometimes disparate accreditation standards

• Sole authorship and traditional expectations of the tenure evaluation process (the publish-or-perish model)

• Limited time on a quarter schedule (10 weeks) to coordinate logistics

DAAP students remain critical ambassadors to new and longstanding relationships in the college’s network of research and curricular collaborators. Among the benefits we strive to sustain through stewarding our valued partnerships are:

• Leadership development in students in addition to knowledge and skills acquisition

• Continuity of learning: There is tremendous empowerment for students to generate peer study vessels

• Peer-to-peer teaching

• Resources of sponsored projects to support student efforts and provide additional learning opportunities through travel or visiting experts

• Keep faculty connected with the practice of their disciplines

One emerging international partnership this academic year features the results of a decades-long collaboration between UC architecture professor Elizabeth Riorden and the University of Tuebingen in Germany. Major funding for the partnership came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Riorden and DAAP’s Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archeological Sites have created an interactive educational resource called Troy on the Internet. The emerging partnership involves a new French partner, Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, which plans to use extensive material from Troy on the Internet in an exhibit in Paris in October 2009.

Collaboration among academic departments has facilitated UC’s establishing a front position in a short time in a specialty area new to us — underwater architecture. And there are many exciting new partnerships, including the possibility of an upcoming interaction with Lunocet from Ciamillo Components as one more example of connecting with leading-edge design from industry. Ciamillo Components is designing and producing a high-performance monofin for extremely fast and agile underwater swimming. We have mutual interests and are seeking symbiotic opportunities to advance our independent efforts to innovate in design.

Brian F. Davies is an associate professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design. He joined UC in 2005 and received the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning’s Outstanding Young Faculty Award that same year. Davies holds both a B.S. and an M.A. in environmental design from Cornell University and came to academia from a career in professional design practice.

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