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New 'collision course' helps students develop ideas for tech startups

Cross-disciplinary class pairs students in computer science and business
March 23, 2017
Assembler team included Jorge Gomez, Moonis Ahmed, Johann Wentzel, Harney Isip, Sasha Ivanov, and Tommy Zhao (not pictured). Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the Office of Vice-President (Research)

Assembler team included Jorge Gomez, Moonis Ahmed, Johann Wentzel, Harney Isip, Sasha Ivanov, and Tommy Zhao (not pictured). Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the Office of Vice-President (Research)

TutorMe team included Rachel Quapp, Adrienne Manalastas, Eric Ma, and Micheal Friesen. Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the Office of Vice-President (Research)

TutorMe team included Rachel Quapp, Edrienne Manalastas, Eric Ma, Micheal Friesen, and Eduard Anghelescu (not pictured). Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the Office of Vice-President (Research)

Frank Maurer, professor and department head, Computer Science, and Chad Saunders, assistant professor, Haskayne School of Business, co-taught the course.

Frank Maurer, professor and department head, Computer Science, and Chad Saunders, assistant professor, Haskayne School of Business, co-taught the course.

A new course that brings together computer science and business students in a sort of mini Silicon Valley sees interdisciplinary teams develop ideas for software startups — from a platform connecting students for tutoring, to 3D computer puzzles that mimic building IKEA bookshelves.

The joint course combines students in a Haskayne School of Business Principles of Entrepreneurship class (ENTI 381, Lecture 03) with students taking Software Entrepreneurship (CPSC 499.01) in the Faculty of Science. The course is taught in flexible space at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. For some material, classes are separated by the big moveable wall in the middle, and the rest of the time the wall is pushed back and the two groups come together in one large classroom. 

The inaugural course ran as a pilot in the fall of 2016. "We really didn’t know if this was going to work or not," says Chad Saunders, assistant professor in entrepreneurship at Haskayne. Despite a few "bumps in the road," the course was so successful it’s being offered again in the fall of 2017.

Course provides a realistic learning experience

"The course is designed for students who are considering creating their own software-based startup in the future or who are interested in working with startup companies," says Frank Maurer, professor in computer science who co-taught the course with Saunders. "The students work in multidisciplinary teams and collaborate for a more realistic learning experience."

UCalgary is one of the first universities to offer a cross-disciplinary class where students develop and present ideas for tech startups. "This is where it needs to go because this is what they’re facing in the job market," says Saunders. A number of guest speakers reinforce the message that in the real world, computer science and business grads are expected to solve problems together.

Students appreciate the 'collision' between two academic worlds

"As someone who already attends classes in both computer science and business, I felt like the two nearly-separate academic worlds I inhabit suddenly collided," says Johann Wentzel, who is in the final year of the Computer Science (Honours) and Business Technology Management program. "It was a very refreshing mix of students with totally different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses and problem-solving instincts."

Wentzel’s group developed Assembler, a collection of IKEA-inspired 3D PC puzzles that get increasingly complicated. "This class was very different from my other classes, mainly in that it was far less of a ‘sit here and learn’ class and more of a dialogue between the professor and the students," he says.

Micheal Friesen, a third-year computer science student, helped develop TutorMe, a simple, cross-platform mobile app that connects students who want to tutor with those who need tutors. After his group brainstormed the idea, they got to work.

"The students from the computer science side of things worked on the prototype and the business students researched marketing strategies and ensured the business model was well thought out," he says. "It was really cool to see the various students working together."

Class goes from "chaos" to constructive team building 

A few weeks in, students pick their teammates in a sort of "speed dating" process, says Saunders. "It was total chaos for that class." That chaos turned into constructive team building and imaginative ideas for startups. Some groups are hoping to commercialize their ideas. Other groups are going back to the drawing board.

"The most common response is that they might not pursue this particular idea, but they are going to pursue something else with this particular team," says Saunders. "They get a semester to create a company, 10 days to do sales, and it disbands. That is reasonably artificial, but the team is not. If you can make it work in a high-stress course environment, that’s a pretty good indication that you have a good team."

Commercialization is a Strategic Research Platform at the university designed to bridge the gap between discovery and innovation. "This class is an opportunity to encourage and improve academic entrepreneurship, technology transfer, and innovation," says Maurer. "Entrepreneurial thinking is not only about making money — it is much broader than that. Entrepreneurs are passionate about solving complex problems in society."

And the budding entrepreneurs in the class are well poised to take on those problems. "There was so much that I learned from the course by just doing it," says Friesen. "I think this is one of my favourite courses I've taken."

Registration opens on March 27; learn more.