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Student challenge: change the world in 90 days

Want to make a difference? A group of Sydney-based universities and GE are testing the hypothesis that bringing together student spark and digital-industrial know-how can accelerate change.

The experiment: take 30 engineering and IT students from Australia’s top universities; add mentors, training, and a powerful software platform; place in a Generator with a tangle of real-world industrial challenges; and shake!

“There’s a lot of talk about the need for big business to collaborate more with the university sector,” says Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE Australia and New Zealand. “In my view this is a great way of actually getting started,” he says, referring to GE’s The Generator: a venture devised by the company’s Global Growth Organisation, driven by its learning and development teams and activated this week by a number of university partners.

Housed in a late-19th-century former factory in Redfern, The Generator launches with faculty call-outs on the university grapevine and social-media campaigns, to students in their second-last year of Engineering & IT or other combined engineering courses.

It’s innovation unfettered for students with the passion to apply their multidisciplinary skills, in teams of one, two, three or four, to industrial-scale problems.

The invitation—apply now!—is to sign up for three months of money-can’t-buy career development and the opportunity to work on open-ended challenges such as: combining data sets from weather, environment, audio and video recordings to create smarter cities—reduce traffic congestion, increase efficiencies in lighting and heating, and prevent security incidents.

For the locomotion-minded student, and the GE customer managing hundreds of kilometres of train track in The Pilbara or Pennsylvania, the task may be to analyse track and rail-wagon wheel-bearing integrity using resonance techniques to detect structural weaknesses—with the possibility of improved asset management and efficient use of critical infrastructure.

Working alongside the leaders of GE Energy in Australia, another team might choose to combine mapping and asset monitoring of the energy grid to avoid devastating and costly blackouts and infrastructure damage.

“The nature of education environments is that as we try to help students understand things, we simplify and break things down so that they can look at pieces of it,” says David Lowe, Associate Dean of Education and Professor of Software Engineering in the faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies at The University of Sydney. “But in doing that you can lose the richness and complexity inherent in dealing with real-world challenges. Projects like the GE Generator help them realise, ‘Yes! I can see how all these bits connect and enable me to have an impact and do really interesting things.’”

Lowe says his students have “an enormous hunger to find experiences that create opportunities for them”.

“It’s difficult for us to give students experiences where they see a whole project from end to end; a project that isn’t trite, that’s interesting and innovative and that has the potential to be useful in the long term.” Professor David Lowe

On the corporate side, Culbert says, “I’d like to think that we can encourage students to consider a career in a large organisation like GE. We’ve recognised the need to become more innovative as a nation, but I think the conversation when it started a couple of years ago was too heavily focussed on the startup community and not enough focussed on the benefits of innovation in big businesses in large-scale industry.”

GE Australia business leaders and experts will collectively spend hundreds of hours planning, devising and delivering to Generator participants intensive training courses in design thinking, change management, presentation skills and Predix (GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet); as well as organising industry contacts and meet-up events; and mentoring the teams to success.

“GE’s digital focus means a lot of the challenges will be software based, and they are generated by leaders across the businesses, from Healthcare, to Aviation.” Emma Milburn

Emma Milburn, program leader at GE who has had the mammoth task of co-ordinating all mentoring and facilitating parts of The Generator, ready for first fire this month, says, “I’m most excited to see the cross-mentorship: how these students tackle challenges and how that relates to how we would typically respond to challenges at GE.”

On the university side, educators anticipate students will gain critical industry experience—Generator participation fulfils course-accreditation requirements—and a unique, stimulating opportunity at a pivotal moment in their skills development.

Says Dean, Professor Ian Burnett of the Faculty of Engineering and IT at University Technology Sydney, “This great initiative provides our Engineering and IT students the opportunity to work on real-world challenges with industry and peers. It’s inspiring to see young people developing innovative problem-solving skills for their future careers.”

“What I’d like to do is get our customers in there as well; for GE staff, students and customers to be collaborating—that’s the perfect scenario.” Geoff Culbert

At the University of New South Wales, Associate Dean of Education, Dr Ray Eaton of the Faculty of Engineering says, “Programs like The Generator allow our students to not only engage with professional practice, but also be exposed to—and work on solving—a range of real, everyday problems in industry and society. They allow students to explore innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to diverse challenges, while enhancing professional skills such as teamwork and communication.”

The expectation is that student teams will devise solutions and new strategies for tackling immediate and future dilemmas. “If we come up with ideas and solutions that we’re able to roll out for the benefit of our customers, then there’s an immediate win: for our customers, for us and for the students,” says Culbert.

At the launch moment of this project, Culbert emphasises its experimental nature, but says his ultimate definition of success is: “To build a sustainable program that we can expand over time so that we can reach more and more students. And that The Generator becomes highly sought after because students are getting a great experience and they want to be involved.”

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