In 2013, U-M alum Roger Valade fulfilled a dream of returning to Ann Arbor when he took a position at ProQuest, an education technology firm best known for online research resources. ProQuest was founded in Ann Arbor in 1938 and had a long history of involvement with the city and his beloved alma mater. “As an alum, I was eager to expand that involvement to include my team,” he stated.
Finding out how to make the right connections
He quickly connected with Nick Miller in the Business Engagement Center, and Nick spent time talking with Roger about ProQuest’s business goals and objectives. Nick identified a few opportunities where U-M programs and ProQuest interests aligned nicely and connected him to campus. One of those opportunities was with the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) in the College of Engineering.
The Multidisciplinary Design Program is a competitively-selected curricular program for students at U-M. Every year, they organize approximately 40 teams of 5-7 students to tackle engineering and/or chemistry projects for various corporate, non-profit and government organizations. All teams are jointly mentored by a dedicated U-M faculty member and a member of the sponsoring organization.
ProQuest started with one project in 2014 but quickly realized the value in participating and has done one or two projects each year since. “MDP provided the structure we needed. We just said here are the cool and interesting projects that we think are worth investing time and energy in, and we worked together to hone the list to determine which projects to pursue. If the only outcome was that we got to meet great students and work on a project, that in and of itself would be fantastic; if the outcome developed tangible merit, even better,” shared Roger.
Joy Adams, Sponsored Projects Program Manager for the Multidisciplinary Design Program has been working with ProQuest closely, facilitating and recruiting their student teams for each of the past four years. ”ProQuest has been an excellent partner for the MDP program – providing challenging and valuable projects, mentorship and guidance, and internships and full-time job opportunities to their students. It’s rewarding to see the mutual benefits of experiential learning happen year after year.”
From big data to supply chain to modeling and simulations
Their projects have ranged from raw software development, data science, machine learning, and user experience design. “Our first project involved user design optimization for a k12 product, eLibrary. It hadn’t been improved from the user perspective in a while. The team went out to schools and universities, talked to students, did design work, and came up with ideas for new models that helped us decide on ways we could improve user experience. The students come up with ideas from such a different perspective; they did a great job.”
Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, got involved right away. He shares, “Being particularly focused on K-12 education technology, I was immediately interested in mentoring ProQuest’s first project on the eLibrary. ProQuest has proposed a number of timely project topics of great interest to students and has been very supportive of them They have provided access to resources, data, and experts in various fields that greatly help students to complete their projects.” Since then, Professor Jamin has mentored three more machine learning related projects that ProQuest sponsored.
Valade recalls, “We did two really cool machine learning/computer science projects – one taking historical newspapers and significantly enhancing the search functionality using visual computing technology and linguistic analysis to break pages down into articles. This ended up being a project big enough to continue a second year.”
A number of students had the opportunity to continue working with the company as summer interns, often continuing or deepening their MDP work. ProQuest is also in the final stages of hiring their first Data Scientist, an alum of their MDP projects.
The outcomes – for ProQuest and for the students – make an impact.
Brady Zhu, an undergraduate student in the College of Engineering, is on the ProQuest MDP team this year. He says, “Unlike traditional coding classes at UofM where we are free to do implementations, ProQuest set industry standards for us. They provide us with access to the project management and communication tools, which is also a valuable experience for a team project. They actively keep track of our progress and provide valuable feedbacks and suggestions. Their close attention makes us feel that what we are doing is quite important to the company’s portfolio.”
Jason Zin, also an undergraduate Engineering student on the team, considers the experience in industry very valuable to student learning: “Working with ProQuest engineers gives us access to a new perspective of experienced industry leaders. They will point out from past experience common patterns in projects (e.g. this phase typically takes longer than you would expect, make sure to watch out for that, etc.). Besides their practical knowledge, they are always making sure that our entire team finds work in which they are interested. For instance, even though a re-design of the application is not planned until after this year, they encouraged our UI/UX Team to design one as a basis for changing the current UI/UX to make sure that they felt engaged. Our work feels important to ProQuest.”
It’s so much fun working with the students
Roger jokes, as many of us alums do, that he doesn’t remember being this smart in college.
The collaborative combination of faculty, students and sponsor is an opportunity for all involved to learn from each other. Professor Jamin ends, “Guiding students through both the technical challenges and teamwork mechanics that come with advanced software development in a real-world industrial setting has been invigorating and rewarding. I have enjoyed the collegiate interaction with ProQuest professional staff and have invited them to address my other courses. It seems that Roger has expanded his team’s involvement with his alma mater more deeply than he might have originally intended!”
More information about U-M’s Multidisciplinary Design Program can be found here.
Corporate engagement resources can be found at the Business Engagement Center.
More information about ProQuest can be found here.