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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Students running international corporation

By Lynn A. Nystrom

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 07 - October 10, 1996

Mary, a senior in electrical engineering, is 21 and the chairman of the board of her company. Her colleague, Matt, a junior in mechanical engineering, serves as president of the business. And the rest of the executive officers are also members of the student body at Virginia Tech.

During the fall board meeting, these students and corporate managers have some very serious items to consider. What are the market constraints for their product? Are the technological risks ones that the board of directors can accept? The current public policy needs to be amended to allow for maximum profit; how are they going to change the attitude of the Washington politicians? And, most importantly to the stockholders, what are the bottom-line considerations for the firm's profits?

For the board meeting, Mary has requested that all of the department heads attend. Bob, a sophomore in materials science, heads the engineering department; the human-resources director is Sneha, a junior in industrial engineering; consumer studies is managed by Ruth of the College of Human Resources and Education; and Marcus, a mining and minerals engineering student, leads research and development.

Non-engineering students comprise the remainder of the company's administration. The responsibilities of the training program fall to the business major, Sarah. Marketing concerns are handled by Toby, who is pursuing his finance degree. And, because the company is expanding so rapidly, Nancy, an architecture major, is in charge of the plans for growth.

How did all of these Virginia Tech students land such prestigious positions?

At the moment, they are fictitious characters. But the idea represents the latest innovation by engineering educators and their colleagues at Virginia Tech. They are planning the largest interdisciplinary student design project in the country-the virtual corporation.

Fifteen faculty members are in the process of submitting several proposals to NSF and other agencies to create a pilot program for the new professional-education paradigm. The department heads of electrical, civil, mechanical, engineering science and mechanics, materials science and engineering, and industrial and systems engineering teamed with the computer science department of the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Tech, the departments of management and marketing in the Pamplin College of Business, and the department of teaching and learning in the College of Human Resources and Education to create their vision of the student-run virtual corporation.

The virtual corporation will provide Virginia Tech students with a realistic opportunity to experience the marketing, design, production, financial, and management processes of modern corporations.

The faculty members' goal is to have the virtual engineering corporation represent as closely as possible a real-world, international business. The Virginia Tech model will incorporate departments ranging from engineering, marketing, research and development to human resources, manufacturing, and training. The students will work in teams to discuss large, open-ended, real-world problems. Market constraints, public policy, ethics, manufacturing, and finance might be among the considerations for debate. As in the professional world, right and wrong answers are not apparent, and the assessment of risk factors by the students may determine an outcome. These concerns will create the need to interact with the faculty members and students of the colleges of Business, Human Resources and Education, Arts and Sciences and Engineering. The students will operate with limited resources and will be required to write proposals for additional funds. With funding, it may be possible to have paid employees of the company.

Leonard Ferrari, professor and head of the Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering, says he anticipates strong support from the government and industrial community in Virginia because he hopes to concentrate the project's efforts on technical areas that are key elements to the commonwealth's economic development. Five Virginia companies have already committed $10,000 in membership fees to a corporate-affiliate program and will serve as advisors to the projects and management.

The project, as outlined in the NSF proposals, plans for virtual corporations in the areas of transportation, medical-information systems, communications infrastructure, and "intelligent" energy-efficient buildings. With this diversification of corporations, undergraduates from all of Virginia Tech's colleges will be provided the opportunity of spending up to four years on an interdisciplinary design project.

Graduate students can be involved for a year or more. The participants will develop their skills in such corporate needs as teamwork, design, communication, writing, management, finance, and global awareness, and they will develop an understanding of diverse multi-cultural work groups.

While the Virginia Tech educators wait for responses from NSF and other agencies, they are already starting the first project. It will be the design of a hospital database and telemedicine system for Montgomery Regional Hospital (MRH), operated by Columbia Healthcare Systems, manager of more than 300 hospitals in the U.S. To accomplish the product goals, the students will work with Andy Cohill and his colleagues at Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) to expand the Blacksburg community network. The students will actually produce hardware and software products for implementation at MRH and in the town of Blacksburg.