UIC’s Cool CAT (Lab)
UIC’s Cool CAT (Lab)

“The thing I like the most about the CAT Lab are the people. We are a tight group with varied backgrounds. This brings new and constant ideas to the table and elevates your thinking. It’s like bouncing the ball in the air and making sure it never touches the floor; someone else picks up from where you left off.” Karan Patel (MS MIS ’17)

Today’s college students are launching their professional lives amid the realities of the Data Economy — a dynamic environment of ongoing information, innovation, and iteration. They will be working for organizations that have a constant stream of data, but doing so amid the age-old reality that data doesn’t solve problems or seize opportunities; people do.

So given the pace of launching new products and services in the digital age, what kinds of educational experiences are going to best prepare UIC students? And how might businesses benefit from the relative ease of the students’ negotiations in the digital world sooner, rather than later?

To the benefit of both these sides of the knowledge exchange, Caterpillar has staffed a research laboratory on campus, in the UIC Innovation Center. A multidisciplinary team of students — graphic and industrial designers, business majors, experts in computer science, data analytics, and information systems — are being mentored by Samantha Melchiori, Caterpillar’s Digital and Analytics Site Director, and Beth Ladd, the company’s Analytics Research and Development Manager, as well as the Innovation Center’s Executive Director, Peter Pfanner; CADA faculty member Don Bergh from the School of Design; and Computer Science Professor Ugo Buy, from the College of Engineering. Caterpillar has already moved well beyond the opening gambit — What about a construction site could be construed as digital? — and is imagining what the connected worker looks like 10 years from now — that worker being part of a broad ecosystem in which machines, people, workflows, materials, and the weather conditions are all ingredients to making a safer and more productive worksite. Once you start asking questions about big machines, construction sites, efficiency, and a multitude of other factors present, you begin to understand why you need a lot of different minds in the room.

Now entering its second year, the lab grew out of an interdisciplinary product development course CAT launched with UIC two years ago as a way of taking students from asking open-ended questions to identifying the real problems to solve, to rapid proto- typing, testing, and reiteration.

Andrew Kunk (BDes ’18) explains his experience in the lab: “Before working at the CAT Lab, I was unsure about what kind of design I wanted to practice. The lab has helped me realize my interest in taking a user-centered approach. I had a wonderful experience, for example, traveling to a job site in Texas to do observational research and user testing with fuel truck drivers we have been developing an optimization solution for. Seeing the difference between the needs we had assumed and been told about, and what we actually saw when we got there, was extremely telling, and it affirmed the need for a real, practical understanding to design responsibly.”

In the process of overseeing the students, Bergh is continually amazed at the spirit of the work: “Caterpillar brings us open-ended problems they are interested in solving, and lets the students put their spin on them. The students aren’t professionals within the industry, but they do have a fresh, probably naïve, take, and Caterpillar values it. We guide the lab, but the students are doing everything. It’s immersive, with lots of opportunity to do new things, including failing.”

As a representative of Caterpillar, Ladd shares Bergh’s enthusiasm for the benefits to both the students and the company: “The lab gives students the opportunity to face key questions such as ‘How many resources do I have? How much time?’” Ladd says the students also experience “a tangible budget, really a microcosm of what you might experience at a corporate level.” For Caterpillar, Ladd explains, the students offer valuable perspectives untethered to the old ways,” and she readily notes that “increasingly, the students’ generation will be in the ones sitting in Caterpillar’s machines.”

Bridget Mroczkowski (MDes 2019), another CAT Lab student, did exactly that. “For part of our research, we visited the Caterpillar offices in Aurora and were lucky enough to drive and operate front loaders,” she recalls, adding, “I would highly recommend this to anyone who needs some stress relief!” Mroczkowski also credits the lab with solidifying her interest in user-centered research: “Before this I had taken design research classes under Robert Zolna and Susan Stirling at UIC. Being able to apply the methodology and seeing how it worked was exciting and mind-opening. Working closely with the computer science students who are on our team has also heightened my awareness of how fast the fields of CS and design are converging. I see a lot of opportunity in this experience for future professional goals.”

Image: Student Andrew Kunk (BDes ’18) learning how to operate a front loader