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Michael Wesch at Kansas State recently blogged about how he and his students run their research class.  The quote that hits home: “First off, we organize it as a research group, not a class.”  The rest of the posting describes how this works in more detail.

For the last two years, The Anthro Guys have been doing something very similar.  We run the Institute of Public Anthropology as an anthropological consultancy at the service of Fresno’s non- and for-profit community.  Our mission is to use anthropological skills and knowledge to improve the quality of life in the Central Valley.  The students in our field methods class work the projects we land.  They get real life research experience and our clients gain insight into how to improve the way they serve their clients and customers.  Win-win.

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From Left: Dalitso Ruwe, Kim Arnold (back), Jamie San Andres, Dave Moore (back), Felicia Salcido, Elfego Franco (back) and Ashlee Dotson. Alecia Barela not pictured.

Some of this bore fruit that past weekend.  On May 1, seven Fresno State undergrad anthro majors and one recent graduate traveled to SWAA’09 (the Southwestern Anthropological Association conference) in Las Vegas to present findings from Institute of Public Anthropology projects.  Four — Ashlee Dotson, Alecia Barela, Kim Arnold and Dalitso Ruwe — talked about the Library Study, two — Jamie San Andres and Felicia Salcido — about the anthro-architecture collaboration on ArcHop, and two — Elfego Franco and Dave Moore — about using anthro in product development, aka “how anthropology can make you wealthy.”  The audience was particularly attentive at that point.

I, Anthroguy, was there and can tell you that they acquitted themselves superbly (and at the early hour of 8am!) with some astute observations, interpretations and reflections on everything from libraries to urban revitalization to iPhone apps.  “Anthropology: we do more before 9am than most sociologists do in a day!”  😉

Aside from working IPA projects, Dalitso, Elfego and Dave are also in my interdisciplinary anthro-business-engineering class this semester.  The class is actually organized as a start-up venture, and the ten students (three anthros, six entrepreneurship, and one engineer) have been working on developing an iPhone app that will enable electric guitar players to practice anywhere anytime and still have access to all their guitar effects:  “self-expression on the go,” as they say.  The anthro students did fieldwork and design workshops with guitar players to explore how they experience effects pedals and the feasibility of putting it all on an iPhone app.  All the students collaborated to work up a business plan based on the results of that and other research.

So….while the anthros were in Las Vegas, five of their entrepreneurship major classmates were in Chicago at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Day.  IIT requires all students to participate in an interdisciplinary team project centered on an innovative design solution to some socially pressing problem or market need.  On IPRO Day, teams present their projects for judging, and for the last two years I have sent a team from my interdisciplinary class to compete.  Last year, the Fresno State team took the award for best business plan.  This year, the business students from iPhone app team – Jared Apodaca, Jason Tromborg, Donna Dizon, Cesar Sanchez and Lee Vue – presented their business plan.  They didn’t win any prizes, but they were approached by a private investor asking for more financial projections.  (Fingers crossed.)

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For the last few days, I’ve been at the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.  This is mostly university-based faculty from business and engineering with some social scientists and random smattering of physicists and others.  Everyone has an interest in fostering creativity and innovation among students.  Other Fresno State folks here include Shirley Kovacs, chair of Biology, Dave Goorahoo of Plant Science, George Vozikis from business, and Tim Stearns and Mike Summers from the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

My contribution was a session on using social science to discover innovative products and services.  Typical of the cross-disciplinary ferment at this conference, the panel consisted of myself (an anthropologist), Khanjan Mehta, a Penn State electrical engineer, and Leslie Speer, an industrial designer from San Jose State.  I spoke about my passion, ethnography, the research method that characterizes cultural anthropology and that takes us out into the world to experience and understand the lives of others.  I argued that among research strategies, ethnography offers the best path to inspirational insight into new products and services.  Leslie detailed her engagement with projects on obesity and children’s diets and pesticide exposure among farmworkers.  She talked about how her research took her and her collaborators straight to lunch rooms and fields to interact with people face to face, to understand their views and behaviors, and then develop strategies for promoting better diets and low-cost solutions to pesticide exposure problems.

Khanjan described perhaps the most intriguing cross-disciplinary combination I have encountered so far:  a joint project between himself (an electrical engineer) and his colleagues in Women’s Studies at Penn State.  Among other projects, they are working on cell phone networks for female entrepreneurs and low-cost health delivery systems, both in Tanzania.  Khanjan said that he came to collaborate with his Women’s Studies colleagues after realizing that the biggest factors influencing success in such projects were not technical, but social and cultural.  The social scientists helped him and his engineering colleagues grapple with the social networks and power structures that can either constrain or enable tech projects.

This is my second time going to the NCIIA conference, and like last year, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for the expertise and energy of people in other fields, from physics to engineering to design.  I’m also encouraged by the response to our panel and by the steady stream of evidence that multidisciplinary projects can take us and our students further than any one discipline can go alone.

Read the papers from my panel here.

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