UM graduates 30 team players Collaboration: Business and engineering majors work together to solve theoretical and real-life problems in a 3-year-old University of Maryland program.

June 05, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Hayden Metz went to the University of Maryland to study electrical engineering, but he spent much of his time with business students.

Metz, 22, worked with business majors in school and off campus to prepare himself for the working world he will enter after graduate school.

"I think it will allow me to hit the ground running," said Metz, who plans to attend the University of California at Berkeley in the fall.

"I won't have to take the time learning to work in groups."

The College Park resident was among 30 students who became the first graduates of a 3-year-old program that forms teams of business and engineering students. Together, they worked in class and at job sites to solve theoretical and real-life problems.

The program, sponsored by International Business Machines Corp., is called IBM-Total Quality.

It operates on the notion that students headed for careers in business and engineering will have to collaborate to produce goods or provide services and that they should be trained to work in teams before they leave school.

"The push comes from industry; industry says we want people to talk to one another across boundaries," said Arjang Assad, director of IBM-TQ.

"There are business implications for engineering tasks. They've got to feel comfortable communicating their know-how to somebody who's not an engineer."

Assad said professionals from business and engineering backgrounds need to learn what each other's jobs entail as well as the jargon and terminology.

The concept of working together across disciplines came from businesses that contend they spend too much time and money training employees to work in teams.

Total quality management, a corporate catch-phrase of the 1990s, has been defined as a condition when a company's products and its internal workings are as good as they possibly can be.

A number of large companies -- including Motorola Inc., Xerox Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. -- have worked with universities in recent years to implement total quality concepts.

UM won a $1.3 million grant from IBM to launch its program three years ago.

The corporation helped the school build a "teaching theater" with the capability to instruct students through video conferences and a computer lab with interactive software.

Engineering and business students were selected for the program on the basis of their academic performance during their freshman year and essays submitted with applications.

The class that graduated last month started three years ago with 40 sophomores -- 10 of them either transferred or dropped out of the program. Students spent their sophomore and junior years taking regular classes and three-credit courses that focused on total quality.

"I think the big thing is just changing the way you look at things," is the way Patrick M. Valenti, 21, of Emmitsburg described the point of the classes.

He is to start working in the Washington tax department of the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche on July 1.

Practical experience

But, like other graduates of IBM-TQ, he already has gained practical experience solving real problems. He and other students in the third year of the program worked on projects at AlliedSignal Inc., Black & Decker Corp. and other companies.

Valenti and three other business students tackled a problem at Vann's Spices Ltd., a 19-employee firm in Towson that was trying to improve its cost-accounting system.

He said the record-keeping was poor and that the group initially was unable to make sense of the books.

"The first month, we really didn't know what we were doing. We went down the wrong path a couple of times," he said.

He added that the team received guidance -- but was not offered answers -- from Assad, the director.

"The bulk of our time was taking the data they were giving to us and transforming it into something we could use."

Eventually, Valenti said, the group came up with solutions that would help the company figure out how long it took to make each product and to determine which are most cost-effective.

The team delivered a 15-page report that the company says it plans to use.

"There's some augmenting data that we're going to collect to refine their report, but they gave us the right direction," said Richard Wilder, who works for Vann's, which was founded 14 years ago by his wife, Ann.

"I think we'll have a very useful tool."

In another project, business and engineering majors were brought together by a battery-operated device called Sport Count.

The product, invented by a dentist, fits on the finger of a swimmer or runner keeping track of time and distance during a workout.

Business majors Eric Waldman, 22, of Bethesda and Debbie Gordon, 22, of Pikesville worked with three engineering students to try to improve the product and its marketing.

Invaluable experience

Waldman said he doesn't know if the team's recommendations will be implemented but the experience was invaluable.

"I never thought I'd be working with engineers in a group like that," he said.

"We were able to bounce ideas off each other."

Said Gordon, who also has landed a job at Deloitte & Touche: "I've learned a lot about engineering and, hopefully, I've taught some of those engineering students that there's more to life than their designs."

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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