UVM’s Integrated Product Development: Not your everyday class

UVM’s Integrated Product Development course has no exams. There are no midterms, assignments, or lectures from professors. The word “homework” is never mentioned.
This does not seem like the average university class. Well, that’s because it’s not a class. It’s a job. 
IPD, a selective course offered by the UVM School of Business, is designed specifically for students with high achievement and imagination. The goal of the class is to give students the tools and mindset of creating their own products, incorporating key elements of business, engineering, and design. And in a matter months, the students will have designed their own products, while creating their own marketing techniques, financing, and presentation.
IPD consists of roughly 12 students. However, because of the work environment of the class, they are called “employees.” This means they are treated as workers of a business (often referred to as “IPD Inc”).
“We don’t have class meetings, we have staff meetings. We are employees of the company, we’re working for them,” says Andrew Chase, a graduating senior in the Business School.
The purpose of the course is to push students to think on their own without much instruction from teachers. Rather, students work together in a variety of steps to meet their end goals.
First, the class works with a client from the Vermont community every year. Instructor Jerry Manock explains the client process.
“We try to select any client, including Hampton Direct (last year’s client), and ask them what they want designed for their business. Right there after, the students are set loose in three teams to try to come up with some new ideas. So that way, the client is involved with the process quite heavily. The students go to their facility and they talk to them at the beginning of the process.”
Hampton Direct is a consumer product developer based in Williston. You can find some of their products in Walmart and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Other clients in the past have been Lake Champlain Chocolates, Burton Snowboards, Pediatric Surgery Division of Fletcher Allen, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Concept2 (rowing products), and Conant Custom Brass. Working directly with these companies gives the students exposure to business in Vermont, which is a great way to acquire real-world experience.
For the first half of the semester, students study the market, the technology, and the business of that year’s client. They are taught a process to actually come up with a list of ideas and are given brainstorming exercises to help them along the way.
“We even have an exercise where we go and get all kinds of trash, and throw it in the middle of a faculty lounge,” says Professor Larry Shirland. “There’s a theme and they have to come up with some product in an hour and a half, using all this material. Sometimes they’re quite surprised. The fact that it’s somewhat humorous is a bonus.”
After much brainstorming, the students can finally use their product design and start building a prototype.
“After they have developed a product, it’s familiarizing them with manufacturing and materials, engineering topics. We don’t turn them into engineers but we want them to know a bit of it,” says Manock.
Products designed by students in the past have ranged anywhere from brass bird houses and hospital IV stands, to surgery camera brackets and snowboarding totes. Any idea is possible in IPD.
IPD Inc’s students spend the last half of the semester creating their product and preparing for a presentation to a theoretical Board of Directors. There are about 50 board members in total that come to “invest” in these products. Even members of the UVM School of Business Advisory Board attend from all over the country.
Students make a 15-minute presentation covering all aspects of the product. They must also defend their product during a heated question and answer session that can last 40 minutes long. Students must think on their feet and defend their products, while selling their idea to the Board of Directors.
This class also opens up opportunities down the road for its participants.
“Two years ago, a team in our class went ahead and signed a contract with Hampton Direct,” says Manock. “The product was an electric stove pan liner. They designed some that were made of high temperature silicon rubber. So they’re flexible, form fitting, and colorful. They can be cleaned easily as opposed to the weak aluminum foil version. Hampton Direct and this group of students took it to the next level in a real life venture. This is the first time a client working with the class has applied their product and took it to the next step.”
The class teaches students inherent skills that can be applied to the real world.
“It's so different from any other class, you learn how to write a business plan, you learn what goes along with that,” says Jenn Scarborough. “When I explained this to potential employers in interviews, they were so interested in it.”
IPD has been going on for 18 years through UVM’s Business School. Every year is as successful as the next. “We ideally want to extend this course to two semesters,” says Larry Shirland. “Also we wish to incorporate more engineering students.”
But no matter what the future holds for the course, students can always count on one thing: homework and exams are out of the question.
by Matt Sulva