AT CORNELL TECH in New York City, the concept of a strong industry-academic partnership isn’t so much a single program as it is a way of life. The new school, launched four years ago as a joint venture between Cornell University and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, offers seven cross-disciplinary degree programs in areas such as business, computer science, engineering, and law. Real-world interactions with businesses, nonprofits, NGOs, and government offices are infused throughout the program.
That’s because Cornell Tech was explicitly founded to be an “engaged campus,” says Doug Stayman, the school’s associate dean. For instance, there’s a requirement that all faculty must address real-world problems in their research; they also must engage with the community through activities such as teaching in local schools and participating in hackathons.
At the same time, the school makes it easy for industry executives to feel at home by leasing out three floors of its Tata Innovation Center to companies that want to install innovation labs and R&D personnel. “The idea is to have this mixture of people coming from different places and industries and working on campus,” says Stayman.
The same building houses the school’s maker lab and the Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Johnson Cornell Tech MBA program. This co-location plan facilitates casual interactions among students, faculty, and executives. “When companies rent space here, their employees can just come downstairs and say to students, ‘Hey, we have questions,’” says Khoa Ma, assistant director of the Studio, a product-development portion of the curriculum.
Creating that permeable border between academia and industry was essential to the design of the new school, says Stayman, because it reflects the realities of today’s digital age. “You can’t be siloed in this world,” he says. “The data you’re working with is world data. So our faculty work together across all disciplines, our students work together across all programs, and all students and faculty are deeply involved in externally engaged projects. We think that’s what we have to do in the digital age to have the most impactful research and learning.”
A STUDIO MINDSET
Industry interaction isn’t just a school philosophy; it’s hardwired into the program through structured activities. A crucial part of Cornell Tech’s collaboration with industry haps each fall when students complete a curriculum requirement known as Product Studio.
“The word ‘studio’ comes from art and architecture, where designers work in a studio to build things and then iterate,” says Stayman. “So while typical MBA students might create Excel spreadsheets and call themselves done, an art or architecture student will sketch out an idea, show it to others, get input, then pivot. That’s what we think creating in the digital world is like.”
In Product Studio, teams of students from all Cornell Tech disciplines work together to come up with digital products to solve problems submitted by companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations. These aren’t typical consulting projects with well-defined parameters, Stayman emphasizes. The problems tend to reflect broad challenges that companies are facing in some future or digital realm.
Says Ma, “Companies submit challenges in areas of interest they don’t want to invest resources in until they get some validation.”
Aaron Holiday, managing partner at 645 Ventures and managing entrepreneurial officer at Cornell Tech, advises a team of students on their Product Studio challenge from the writing app Grammarly.
Students use their recently acquired skills to find solutions. “One of the requirements is that they think of a digitally enabled product to build,” says Ma. “We don’t want them to spend three months doing a research paper. We want them to build something that in the end is meaningful.”
The school expects the process to require many iterations. “We want students to learn to be agile and creative,” says Stayman. “It’s a different way of looking at product development, interacting with customers, and capturing value. You don’t build a steel plant and then figure out what’s working—you have to know the market, the technology, and the design. But that’s not the way digital products work. You do a minimum viable product and let people use it, and then you can pivot it. That’s a very different mindset.”
‘HOW MIGHT WE…?’
Coordinating the projects with the student teams takes a great deal of groundwork. In the spring or summer, the school sends out a call asking companies to submit their challenges for the fall semester. While there is no fee for companies to participate, there are two requirements: Companies must submit their challenges in the form of a “how might we” question, and they must provide a person to serve as a point of contact for the students.
Before the semester starts, the school has students fill out questionnaires in which they specify the kinds of industries, companies, and problems that are of the most interest to them. Using an algorithm written by an alum, the school creates four- and five-person cross-disciplinary teams based on student interests and matches those teams to companies that have submitted challenges.
“The student body changes every year, so we quickly see what trends are current,” says Ma. “This past year, fintech, blockchain, the Internet of Things, and virtual reality were all things students wanted to work on. In addition, social impact is always something students are looking for.”
Students don’t get to choose their teammates, in part because “that’s how the real world works,” says Ma. But in part it’s because the school wants to ensure great diversity among team members. Therefore, one team might comprise design students, business students, and an electrical engineer.
Among the organizations that have recently participated in Product Studio are Citi, MasterCard, Discover, Verizon, Amazon, Google, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the office of the major of New York City. For the fall 2017 semester, the school received more than 200 “how might we” questions from 100 companies, and of these, 52 were matched with student teams.
For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked: “How might we insure that low-income people in rural areas in emerging markets have an easy, affordable, and trusted way to transform their money from physical to digital and back?” The team first had to determine what kind of technology might be available in the part of the world they chose to study—India, which has a large unbanked population—and what the current infrastructure was. They ultimately came up with an app they named Pocket Change, which relies on the cell phone technology that is prevalent throughout the country. One person who has cash will take a photograph of it, including its serial numbers; a person who needs a loan will meet with the money-holder in a public space supervised by trusted leaders so the cash can be exchanged. No banks are involved in the transaction.
For another challenge, the streaming media service Roku asked, “How might we redesign TV advertising to create a better experience for both brand and viewer?” Because so many consumers today have their phones in hand while they’re watching TV, the student team devised an app that runs on smartphones and interacts with the broadcast program. When an ad shows on the television, an icon appears on the phone screen, and interested viewers can swipe on the icon to learn more.
Ma believes that such “how might we” questions really force teams to think deeply and creatively. “When teams look at solutions, they shine lights on things companies haven’t even thought about. They aren’t just working with future tech, they’re thinking about how it can be applied.”
A DIFFERENT SKILL SET
At Cornell Tech, the underlying assumption is that, to prepare students to work in the digital age, the school must provide a deeply integrated, cross-disciplinary, and technical education.
To lead in the digital world, not all students must pursue technical careers, but they all must learn the core skills of agility and adaptability, says Stayman. “They’ll have to understand the culture, the language, and the problems of a technical person. IT is no longer just tech support. It’s a strategic part of the business. And it doesn’t stay stable, so they’ll have to be able to adapt going forward,” he says. “Today, business needs a different skill set, and I think business schools have to adjust.”
Ma agrees. “In a traditional school, students might learn from a case study, but it’s usually a couple of years old and it’s no longer relevant for the company or the students,” he says. “We want to make projects relevant every year. We believe that in the future, education and industry will interact as part of the ecosystem.”
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This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to [email protected].