IEEE Senior Member Samir Chatterjee is transforming what education looks like at two universities in the Los Angeles area. His teaching model is based on the makerspace concept of building things to solve problems. He wants to equip students with the tools they need to do just that, and help them turn concepts into prototypes and even profitable ventures.
Chatterjee is an adjunct professor of innovation and design at the University of Southern California’s Iovine and Young Academy (IYA). In the makerspace there, he has undergraduate students with backgrounds in areas such as music, graphic design, and computer science working together.
The academy, a four-year undergraduate program, was founded in 2014 and is named after Jimmy Iovine, a founder of Interscope Records, and rapper and entrepreneur Andre “Dr. Dre” Young. Together they created the headphone company Beats, which was acquired by Apple. The money from the acquisition helped to provide funding to establish the school.
Chatterjee’s other venue is the Innovation Design and Empowerment Applications (IDEA) Lab, which he founded at Claremont Graduate University in 2002. Ph.D. students there collaborate on projects designed to improve quality of life. They work on their projects for the three or four years it takes them to complete their program. Students have access to devices and materials not often found in traditional classrooms, such as 3D printers and rapid visualization software tools used to sketch out concepts on a computer.
“The students love to learn by doing,” Chatterjee says. “The skills they’re developing in these makerspaces are valuable in the marketplace today, and give the students an edge over their competition.”
In this interview, Chatterjee discusses some of the successful projects that have emerged from the two labs.
Tell us about IYA and what it offers students.
The academy is designed to teach critical thinking and innovation. It’s focused on three areas: art and design, engineering and computer science, and business and venture management. The school draws on the talents of faculty and visiting industry leaders to empower the next generation of innovators with the potential to disrupt industries.
Faculty members work with students to bring design thinking and business innovation principles to their projects. The students at IYA meet at a makerspace fondly called the garage because it’s outfitted with a host of technical tools. They have the means at their disposal to come up with creative designs for their projects and see them through to working models.
What is your role at the academy?
I joined in January, and my main role is to get students involved with the school’s R&D activities. I also help develop the curriculum, which is a blend of courses on software, business innovation, and engineering. And I work with the students on their capstone projects in a class called the Garage Experience. Student teams incorporating different disciplines select real-world problems to take on, come up with solutions, design a prototype, and then test it.
One such project is CancerBase. Students developed a software program that helps cancer patients monitor the progress of the disease and learn about treatment options from data collected about other patients. It was one of several projects featured at the White House’s Cancer Moonshot summit, held in October. Established last year under the Obama administration, the national Cancer Moonshot project is a US $1 billion initiative to accelerate the development of new methods and treatments that will help eliminate cancer. CancerBase received funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Another project is Mira Labs, a startup launched in 2015 by several of the academy’s students. It is developing augmented-reality smartglasses that will sell for less than $30. The venture will be receiving an early-stage $1.5 million investment later this year. The startup’s advisory board includes Atari founder Nolan Bushnell as well as a developer of the Google Cardboard virtual reality glasses and the lead developer at Beats.
What led you to launch the IDEA Lab, and what would you like it to accomplish?
My ultimate goal is to make the lab an incubator of breakthrough ideas and startups launched by students. More than 30 R&D projects have been completed so far, and nearly 10 more are underway. One project that came out of the program is DCL Health, a technology startup pioneering the use of artificial-intelligence and sensor technologies to remotely monitor patients with chronic diseases including diabetes and heart conditions. Its remote monitoring software can assist patients with heart failure to manage their recovery at home.
What lessons can other schools learn from your labs?
Perseverance is needed to successfully launch such makerspaces at universities. At Claremont, I built the IDEA Lab from the ground up in 2002 with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Each successful project brought another and attracted donors and sponsors. Today we’re in a position to be leaders in this new model for education. Twenty Ph.D. students have graduated from the lab.
Not every student is right for this environment. It takes a certain type of person, specifically those who are risk-takers and have the passion to solve a big problem. Such labs provide them with the ingredients for their projects to succeed.
This article appears in the September 2017 print issue as “Bringing the Maker Philosophy to Universities.”