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Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments

I have been awarded $170,000 from the UW Innovation Fund for the project “Engineering Communication in Data Rich Environments: How do we support innovation in multidisciplinary teams?”

Today’s engineers grapple with more data, more people, and less time. Design theory suggests collaborative problem solving leads to innovation, but multidisciplinary projects often fall short of this potential because experts from different fields lack the communication and collaboration skills they need to translate their work across disciplinary boundaries. Joint problem solving requires teams to address differences in values, requirements, and constraints, as happens when a structural engineer collaborates with an architect. Few engineers are trained explicitly in these skills, yet engineering problems from hardware to infrastructure, from nanotechnology to skyscrapers require engineers to work with teams of experts from different fields.

Through a UW Innovation Research Award, our project will study how engineers communicate with data and data visualizations for interdisciplinary innovation. We will study both student teams and industry teams to identify the key challenges and opportunities for collaboration in these settings. Our research to date suggests a paradox: more detailed visualizations make it easier for interdisciplinary teams to identify and agree upon problems while making it harder for them to generate solutions. The answer to this paradox, we think, is in the communication strategies that engineers use with other professionals. Our goals are to inspire engineering innovation through the transformation of collaboration with data across disciplines; measure the impact of data communication on shared understanding; and train future engineers in the skills and techniques for communication and collaboration in data-rich environments.

Closing the Innovation Readiness Gap

I have been awarded $200,000 in the form of a UW Innovation Education Award, “Closing the Innovation Readiness Gap.”

My team of four researchers is creating a cross-disciplinary, Web-based program that will provide mentoring and a support network to help students across departments gain entrepreneurial –thinking skills and increase their problem-solving skills. My teammates include Payman Arabshahi, associate professor of electrical engineering and research scientist at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory; Vipin Kumar, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Vikram Jandhyala, vice provost for innovation at UW CoMotion and professor of electrical engineering.

“These are some of the most creative thinkers in our midst and are at the heart of the UW’s innovation ecosystem,” said Provost Ana Mari Cauce. “We congratulate them for fueling the innovative research and education that is working toward a world of good.”

The Innovation Awards will encourage, nurture, bring together, and celebrate creative thinkers in our midst, while increasing public awareness of academic innovation.

Cultural Contexts of Building Use

My team at the Project on Collaboration, Technology & Organizational Practices was just awarded a $73,156 from the University of Washington Green Seed Fund. We’ll pilot a culturally contextual building energy audit to understand the impact of people on campus for making UW greener.

The Building User Audit Procedure project team recognized that while UW has implemented several initiatives to raise awareness of energy use and reduce energy consumption on campus, the university needed a framework to accurately account for the effects of user-influenced energy uses in campus buildings in order for UW to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals. The BUAP, developed and tested through the UW’s Green Seed Fund, reveals a considerable influence of building occupants on energy use as well as a significant gap between occupants’ expected actions and their actual behaviors in terms of building and energy use. For instance, about 60% of survey respondents report that they turn off the lights when leaving their offices, while the building audits indicate that electric lights were left on between 40%-50% of the time in vacant offices. This project introduces an effective, affordable method to estimate the amount and pattern of building occupancy by means of people counters and manual observations. This helps building managers to properly supply resources to the building users or create data-driven occupancy baselines for future building construction and renovation. Further, the BUAP provides a benchmark for creating a behavior-based energy efficiency campaign and improving facility operation and maintenance practices as the UW campus moves forward in reducing overall building energy consumption.

Our “Building User Audit: Capturing Behavior, Energy, and Culture” will run through 2014.

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