They came from Minneapolis and Seattle, from China, Estonia, India, Paraguay and Pakistan, converging in Washington state for a new model in international technology education.
Their backgrounds were as diverse as their countries of origin — they were founders of start-ups, software developers, designers, teachers and researchers. These 37 students are now the first graduating class of the Global Innovation Exchange, a partnership between the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University that opened in Bellevue, Washington, in September 2017. GIX, as it’s known, aims to tackle local and global challenges by bringing together students and faculty with industry and nonprofit partners and entrepreneurs.
At a ceremony on Sunday, the group graduated from GIX’s 15-month Master of Science in Technology Innovation (MSTI) program and its 21-month Dual Degree, the two graduate degrees the institute offers. The program culminated with student launch projects ranging from a high-tech way to identify when a farm’s chickens are in distress to an app that helps parents customize and remotely guide their children’s learning. One student team, working in collaboration with T-Mobile, created an augmented reality app highlighting the capabilities of the company’s 5G technology. Another created a way to use blockchain technology to quickly protect online content from copyright theft.
As a founder of GIX, Microsoft provided $40 million to help build the 100,000-square-foot facility, an airy, open building designed for collaboration and centered around a large makerspace with augmented and virtual reality technologies, a woodshop, 3D printers and laser cutters for students to develop prototypes.
At Sunday’s ceremony, Microsoft President Brad Smith told the graduates that “At a time when technology is sometimes used in ways that don’t necessarily bring out the best in humanity, you’ve shown us that technology can be a powerful force for good.
“There will be many classes to follow in your footsteps, but over time, you will always be unique, because you were the first,” he said. “You played a foundational role in figuring out how to bring this program to life.”
GIX marks the first time a Chinese university has had a physical presence in the United States. Its team-based, experiential approach aims to eliminate boundaries between academic disciplines and bring together the strengths of students with different backgrounds from around the world. Students in the MSTI program take an idea from concept to launch, learning about design, technology development and entrepreneurship. The Dual Degree pairs the MSTI program with a Master of Engineering in Data Science and Information Technology from Tsinghua University, which has students studying for an additional six months in Beijing.
“It’s the complete package for wanting to start a company,” says graduate Bety Mehide, a 23-year-old from Estonia who appreciated the program’s focus on user experience and business development.
“When I measure the value of education, I look at those ‘aha’ moments. I had a lot of those moments here. I’ve been really happy with the program.”
GIX trains students to think globally and ethically in an era of rapid change and increasingly shorter business and technology cycles, says Vikram Jandhyala, GIX’s co-executive director and vice president for innovation strategy at the University of Washington.
“How can we build a future set of innovators who will create products and services and be part of organizations that can navigate this changing landscape and lead innovation?” Jandhyala asks. “That is the premise. It’s not business as usual.”
Most of the 10 team projects of GIX’s inaugural class were sponsored by the institute’s industry partners, which include Microsoft, Boeing, T-Mobile, AT&T and Chinese technology company Baidu. Company leaders pitched loosely defined projects to GIX students, then mentored the teams as they developed their projects, leveraging the companies’ technologies.
That approach to learning makes GIX unique, says Ranveer Chandra, chief scientist for Microsoft Azure Global and an advisor on the chicken-monitoring project, named Cluck AI.
“The students are able to take the latest research from industry, build on top of it and show what can be achieved,” Chandra says.
“This kind of an industry-academic collaboration, where industry’s not just handing off something to students but providing them with cutting-edge research and working closely with them, is something I haven’t seen before as part of a curriculum.”
The Cluck AI team worked with Microsoft engineers to use machine learning to identify when chickens on a farm are in distress — when a predator is nearby, for example, or when they are overheated. A microphone captures the animals’ sounds and sends them to Azure storage containers. When an anomaly is detected, the audio data is pushed to a dashboard, along with an image of the chicken in apparent distress. The farmer, who may not be onsite to monitor the livestock at all times, gets an email notification and can assess what’s wrong.
“It’s kind of like a baby monitor for poultry farmers,” says team member Padraic Casserly, 32.
The solution uses technology developed for Microsoft’s FarmBeats project, an artificial intelligence and Internet of Things platform that harnesses data to increase farm productivity and cut costs. The four-member GIX team launched the project after Chandra, then the principal researcher behind FarmBeats, suggested that audio data could have untapped potential in farming.
The team decided to focus on chickens, interviewing farmers and even buying two chickens of their own — named Margarita and Daisy — to record them. The students hope to develop the solution further and are looking into possible funding for a start-up.
Casserly, who’s from Minneapolis, came to GIX after teaching biomedical engineering in Ethiopia and realizing that his students were not getting the range of skills required to meet the country’s growing needs. GIX’s mix of entrepreneurship, design-thinking and hands-on technology development appealed to him.
“It was the curriculum that sold me,” says Casserly, who is enrolled in GIX’s Dual Degree program and will soon start classes at Tsinghua University. “Machine learning is going to change the landscape of technology for the foreseeable future, and I wanted to make sure I knew how to use it to be an effective engineer and be more marketable.”
Another student team worked with Microsoft to create a smart motion-sensing camera dubbed Diversita that uses machine learning on the edge to photograph and identify different wildlife species. The camera, which can identify 5,000 species within the device, integrates with an online platform that analyzes data in real time and notifies the user when animals are detected, eliminating the time-consuming process of manually poring over huge numbers of images to spot animals.
The device uses a species-classification model developed under Microsoft’s AI for Earth initiative, which harnesses the Microsoft cloud and AI tools to address global environmental challenges. Team member Benjamin Keller says the device has potential for a broad range of uses by researchers and conservationists, including invasive species removal, enclosure monitoring, genetic sampling and protected area management.
“This is one of the first uses of edge computing for conservation and sustainability,” says Keller, 24, who lives in Seattle. “There are other use cases beyond just animals — for studying icebergs or forest growth, for example, or for other identification related to changes in the environment.”
The four-person team hopes to develop the camera further. Teammate Haochen “Hal” Zhang, a 29-year-old software and hardware engineer from Vancouver, British Columbia, is also exploring a possible start-up company for an online platform he’s been working on with a few other GIX students that would provide rehabilitation resources to medical patients in China.
Teammate Ruidong “Ryan” Wu, 28, who’s from China, was a product manager and experience designer for a Beijing-based start-up before enrolling at GIX. He studied industrial design in college and realized he needed to learn computer science and business strategy to understand how to make better products and improve organizational efficiencies. The GIX program, he says, gave him a new framework for approaching product development.
“Everyone in our program has gained a chance to have a holistic view of how modern companies do product research and development,” Wu says. “I think the core value of the program is that it teaches you ask the right questions and then solve problems.”
SparkEd, another student project, is an app to enable parents who are away from their children to help shape their learning. It stemmed in part from the experience of team member Yang “Will” Yue, 24, who has a 10-month-old son living in China and began thinking about how technology could help faraway parents remain involved in their children’s development. In China, particularly in rural areas, it’s common for children to live with grandparents while their parents go off to work in cities, he says.
The app, aimed at parents with children ages 4 to 8, was built around a children’s picture book, “The Stray Dog” by Marc Simont, and allows parents to choose and name characters, create questions and review their children’s responses.
“Parents are the best teachers, but if they’re away, how can they fulfill this role?” asks Yang. “We’re building this solution where parents can create daily-life situations and teach their kids what is a good way to think about things and react.”
Yang and teammate Peng He, who were college friends in China, completed the Tsinghua University portion of their Dual Degree program before starting at GIX. Both are heading back to China — Yang is starting a job as a product manager with Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba, and Peng hopes to launch a new company making technology for clothing manufacturers with another Tsinghua alum.
GIX’s second group of students started classes in September, and the institute — befitting of its mission — is already evolving. GIX will add executive training and “lifelong learning” programs over the next year, Jandhyala says, and there are plans for internship opportunities and online studies. The school will also build programs in collaboration with its academic network partners, which currently include universities in Canada, Switzerland, Israel, India and other countries.
One measure of success, Jandhyala says, will be what GIX graduates do when they go out into the world — whether they’re launching start-ups, leading innovation groups in large companies or working in positions that are part of the emerging innovation economy. While most students are in the early phases of their job searches, several have already received employment offers from companies including Alibaba, Baidu and AMINO Capital.
“The main goal of GIX is creating the right mindset to be an innovator,” Jandhyala says. “I think we are off to a good start.”
Lead photo: The Diversita team (from left) Benjamin Keller, Chengxi “Phelps” Xia, Ruidong “Ryan” Wu and Haochen “Hal” Zhang created a smart motion-sensing camera that uses machine learning to photograph and identify different wildlife species.
GIX graduation ceremony photos by Dan DeLong; all other images by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures
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