August 30, 2012

New program joins computer science and design experts at UW, Tsinghua University

News and Information

Health care? Environmental sustainability? Education? There’s an app for that. At least there may be soon, thanks to a new collaboration between UW and Chinese students.

The University of Washington this July and August hosted the first World Lab Summer Institute, which brings together computer science, human-computer interaction and design students from the UW and Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Together they spent seven weeks developing ways that technology could be used to address global issues in health, environment and education.

Students in the World Lab Summer Institute

Students from China and the U.S. worked in teams of four to brainstorm ideas and develop apps.

The summer exchange is the inaugural activity of the The World Lab, which aims to promote closer collaboration between the UW and Tsinghua, one of the top universities in mainland China, on issues of computer science and design.

The World Lab was founded by James Landay, a UW professor of computer science, and colleagues at Tsinghua, after Landay spent a sabbatical year living in Beijing and working at Microsoft Research Asia.

“In China I saw a lot of excitement and rapid development in computing,” Landay said. “But I also saw ways that China and the U.S. could learn from one another.”

Landay read about economic competition between China and the U.S. But he felt an opportunity and a need for collaboration.

“The world is facing these really important problems in terms of the environment, health and education,” Landay said. “Those problems are felt acutely by the U.S. and China, and both countries need to be part of the solutions. I wondered: ‘How could we attack those problems in a cross-cultural, human-centered way to come up with innovative solutions?’”

During the summer program, 11 Chinese graduate students and nine UW students took classes and worked together on group projects.

Rii User Interface

A student team developed an app to locate and donate materials to recycled artworks.

Last week in the Allen Center they presented their prototypes apps, which included a social-networking tool to donate materials and view recycled artworks; an armband that prompts people to incorporate micro-exercise in their day; and a tool to help parents be more closely involved in many aspects of their child’s education.

The projects were developed by teams of four students, about evenly split between Chinese and Americans, and with an equal mix of design and technical expertise. By the third week of the program each team had created a project concept video, and at the end of the program teams pitched their ideas along with a finished prototype and a high-quality video. Though many of the ideas were nonprofits, each team included a business plan.

Cultural differences shaped how the students developed their ideas and how they chose to present the products. For example King Xia, a UW student majoring in computer science and business administration, said the UW students saw a dandelion as a weed, while the Chinese explained that it’s seen as a sign of hope.

Combining these two world views was a primary goal of the program.

“These are the two largest economies,” commented Richard Tong, a former Microsoft engineer who is a managing partner at Ignition Capital and gave a presentation on pitching ideas for commercialization. “Building a true world product means that you have to understand both very well.”

Students encountered some language barriers, but the primary differences were in communication style.

“The Chinese were always trying to be polite, and the Western people are more straightforward,” said Yu Xin, a student from Beijing who is starting a UW master’s program in Human Centered Design and Engineering. “It was kind of hard at first, but gradually we learned how to express our ideas.”

The Chinese students lived in dorms on the UW campus along with a representative of the East West Coalition, a nonprofit that helped organize the exchange. The summer program was funded through grants from Microsoft, Intel, Google and Nokia.

Six of the nine UW students will travel to China in September to present their projects at Tsinghua University and in Beijing’s 798 art district.

Next year, Landay hopes to run a similar exchange in China, where American students would travel to spend six to eight weeks in Beijing. He hopes the World Lab will develop into a close collaboration between the UW and Tsinghua University, potentially offering dual degrees and eventually having a shared space.

“I hope that this becomes a permanent research institute that works jointly on these types of grand-challenge problems,” Landay said.

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