Helping China university students “get real” at Stanford

Emerging engineers gain insight into real companies, real challenges, and real designs

The students' design was demoed at the Stanford Design EXPErience Fair.The students' design was demoed at the Stanford Design EXPErience Fair.Microsoft Research Asia recently sponsored four students from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in a unique Stanford University course that presents students with real-world design innovation challenges. A Microsoft Research Asia researcher provided ongoing mentorship, supervision, and guidance to the four USTC students, who each spent an academic year jointly developing a project alongside Stanford students.

Stanford’s ME310 design class is a project-based engineering design innovation and development course that has successfully helped young engineers learn to solve real-world problems for more than 40 years. Students from top universities around the world—including Aalto University, Trinity College, and The Hasso Plattner Institute—take on design innovation challenges from corporate partners that include Audi, SAP, and Clariant.

Upon the course’s completion, the USTC-Stanford team’s project—Family Album—was successfully demonstrated at the Stanford Design EXPErience Fair on June 6, 2013.

The demo was the output of a specific design methodology, the Stanford Design Innovation Process, whereby the team continuously tested their design concepts to ultimately create a full proof-of-concept system. The team’s supervisor, Jiawei Gu, Microsoft Research Asia research designer, presented Microsoft Research Asia’s design challenge: “Connecting Digital and Physical Residents.”

The design challenge

The Family Album application uses a photo-projecting lamp to display digital photos in a physical album for hands-on viewing.The Family Album application uses a photo-projecting lamp to display digital photos in a physical album for hands-on viewing.“Microsoft is known for its software, but is directed toward building devices and producing services,” notes Gu. “With this in mind, I challenged our students to design and prototype an interactive artifact that would connect people living in the digital media realm with those relying on traditional physical forms of media.”

The students tried several ideas.

“After a number of user studies, we found that photo sharing is an area of significant disconnect between generations. Young people have smartphones and digital cameras and take thousands of photos each year. Despite this, they rarely share them with their parents and grandparents, who are more accustomed to print photos and as a result feel disengaged,” explains Yunjun Wu, a team member from USTC.

In answer to this predicament, the students decided to create Family Album, an application that enables users to browse through digital photos on a physical album via a photo-projecting lamp. Tech-savvy users can use email or a Windows phone app to upload photos to SkyDrive. The lamp then syncs and downloads photos to the album in real time so that those who are less comfortable with current technologies can access the images instantly and easily. The combination of physical and digital practices bridges the generational divide—and brings photo-sharing opportunities to all members of the family.

Fostering the next generation of technology innovators

This is the second year that Microsoft Research Asia has participated in the course as a ME310 sponsor. As the first Chinese university to be invited as an academic partner, USTC worked with Microsoft Research Asia to direct and mentor students.

“I am very proud of our students and would like to thank Microsoft Research Asia for contributing such a valuable challenge, and working with us to create a new model for a joint program that will significantly help build world-class engineers prepared to address global challenges within China,” says Weiping Li, dean of USTC’s School of Information Science and Technology. “The hands-on experience with user studies and brainstorming, and the course’s design mythology cultivates design thinking like no other.”

Microsoft Research Asia was pleased with the results of this sponsorship, which was just one of the lab’s many efforts to help cultivate the next generation of technology innovators. “Family Album effectively solved the challenge offered and the group’s creativity was a constant revelation,” says Jiawei Gu. “As an interactive product, we are still working on improvements, but students definitely met with success in turning their ideas into reality. It was rewarding to see how they also came to observe, think, and act as innovators in the process.”

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