Areas of Focus
By Dima Nazzal
At a time when 97% of Americans were under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, where life as we knew it was upended in a matter of weeks, my Capstone Design course at Georgia Tech saw 218 senior undergraduates in 30 groups deliver high-value industrial and systems engineering solutions to partner clients including Delta Airlines, Starbucks, Emory Healthcare, and The Home Depot. In the design solutions that these seniors completed – and more fundamentally – how they completed them, were strong signals of how we can all realize incredible efficiencies.
In my pre-pandemic classes, I usually banned the use of cellphones. Computers would be allowed only when I’d tell the students, “Open your notebook and work on analyzing demand data, calculating throughput capacity, or estimating the value and impact of your design.” The environment I sought to curate for my students was built on decades-long history of industrial engineering working norms, which regard distractions as the enemy. And collaboration best occurs through face-to-face engagement and dynamic exchanges of ideas, coupled with rigorous data exploration and analysis.
In mid-March, these norms were overturned because of COVID-19. Students found themselves having to continue their projects from dorm rooms, home states and countries, in isolation and without access to their client’s site. In several instances, the clients were unreachable and unresponsive for an extended period. The students had to lean on their intrinsic motivation, resourcefulness, and integrity more than ever before. What I saw was how prepared they were to make this transition. Rather than being diminished due to a dramatic change of events, the work product was as good as any other Capstone group I’ve led – and in some ways, better (but don’t tell my other students).
These ISyE students were able to deliver high-quality work product because of their ingenuity and training. They leveraged technology, – including the previously forbidden mobile devices and computers, – and quickly adapted to the new environment free of any pre-conceived notion of what a normal work week should be. They restructured their days to allocate time to be more present with their families, to exercise, and to conduct interviews with future employers. They also apportioned enough productive time to give to their projects, and pivot as needed when data or access was scarce.
As COVID-19 eventually recedes, these newfound efficiencies stand to make these students – and us – more productive than before, while affording more time to engage in activities key to quality of life. The tools were already there. This pandemic is the precipitating event showing us how to use them.
As businesses deal with the unique challenges of this time – from a recession requiring tighter control on production, distribution, and warehousing costs to remain competitive; shifting fulfillment channels with the continued rise of e-commerce; significant new health standards that will stay with us for years; and nonprofit organizations that are needed more than ever – these Georgia Tech industrial and systems engineering students have, once again, demonstrated they’re more than up to the task.
This pandemic is making us all – students and faculty -- better prepared, more empathetic, and more flexible. And if it generates more collaborations between Georgia Tech and industry, so much the better. As one Capstone project sponsor told me, “With the success of this team, we are extremely motivated to submit more projects. Also given the COVID-19 lockdown, we are seeing an inflection point and customers/partners are all willing to work remotely more than ever before.”
If you work for an organization, for-profit or nonprofit, large or small, and you have a business problem that can be tackled by a group of highly motivated industrial engineering students mentored by world-class faculty, feel free to reach out to me.
Dima Nazzal is the director of professional practice and Senior Design in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech. She is responsible for project-based learning in the industrial engineering undergraduate curriculum, including the Capstone senior design course and the Cornerstone junior design course.
Please contact Dr. Nazzal here for more information on how your company can partner with advanced industrial engineering undergraduates on a project that will yield real-world results.
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