• The Watt Family Innovation Center


On the walls facing the elevators on the first floor of the Watt Family Innovation Center is wallpaper that features line after line of binary code. Zeroes and ones in patterns, computer code turned into art. That image is in many ways an allegory for the Watt Center. If you translate the binary code on the wallpaper, you’ll be able to read the will of Thomas Green Clemson. That very complex design of zeroes and ones, the symbol of modern computing, when translated, is the essence of Clemson University.

When the architects and designers translated Clemson’s will into binary code, they took something essentially Clemson and turned it on its head. They translated the wishes of a 19th century man who wanted to educate young men in the science of agriculture into a digital language read by computers.
In a similar way, the Watt Center takes the traditional academic building that respects the boundaries of disciplines and majors and colleges, and turns it on its head. This is a building whose walls can move and whose rooms can be reconfigured in a matter of hours. The floors handle airflow, signal cables and power. Video walls that support 3-D imaging let students and faculty mirror multiple laptop screens for group viewing and discussion. A huge media grid on the front of the building is the largest of its kind in this country (24 x 209 ft.). Walls and windows serve as giant “whiteboards” to be written upon. A “makerspace” allows students to produce 3-D prototypes.
There’s collaboration in every nook and cranny of this building, and the energy is palpable.
Charles Watt ’59, whose family’s generosity made this building possible, has a vision for this building, and it is to instill the characteristic of a “maker” into every student who studies within it. His experience in industry, government and education has convinced him that multidisciplinary education is the key to preparing students for the marketplace. Not only do they need depth of knowledge in a particular field, but to compete in today’s global economy, they need to combine that with a breadth of understanding, entrepreneurial outlook, communication skills, critical thinking and the ability to work effectively as a member of a diverse team.

The Watt Center really is a giant laboratory experiment in how to help students develop those skills for taking products from brainstorm to reality. Industry partners who understand the possibilities and the prospects for effectively educating tomorrow’s workforce have signed on, not only to provide state-of-the-art lighting, furniture, electronics and more, but to participate with faculty and students in research and development.

  • Applying industrial engineering concepts to sports management

Fittingly, one program that has found a home in the Watt Center is Creative Inquiry, Clemson’s unique take on undergraduate research. The agile design of the classrooms and capabilities for collaboration make for a perfect combination. In an industrial engineering Creative Inquiry class, three members of the club tennis team are sitting in chairs facing one end of the small classroom. The students in the class line their desks down the side of the room where they can view both ends of the room.

Dotan Shvorin, a doctoral student in industrial engineering who is teaching the course, fits one of the players with a wireless brain sensor that tracks brain waves. The player begins juggling three tennis balls as the screen at the other end of the classroom displays his brain activity, color-coded by brain wave frequencies which are emerging in certain areas of the brain according to the player performance.
The players are then led through a series of exercises, where they view videos on the screen in front of them and predict outcomes. Then they pick up their rackets and finish the swings begun in the video. Their brain activity is displayed on the screen behind them. The students in the class track and analyze which parts of the brain are active, depending on what type of thinking is required for each activity.
Shvorin, who teaches the class with industrial engineering professor Kevin Taaffe, is in his third semester with this Creative Inquiry. During the first semester, they worked with the varsity tennis team, the second with the basketball team, and in each semester they studied how quality engineering methods, game theory, simulation and other IE tools could be used to improve decision-making and performance.
Next semester, the course will begin work with students who have ADD and ADHD and are being served in Disability Services in the Academic Success Center. Educational researchers will join the conversation as the Creative Inquiry team looks at the processes and works with students on how they might “retrain their brains.” Shvorin and his students take performance methodologies currently in use in traditional industrial settings and apply those to the world of sports management and human performance.

It’s easy to understand senior Coker Courie’s sentiments when he says, “It’s completely different from any other industrial engineering class I’ve taken.”

  • Putting data to work

The 14 students on Arelis Moore de Peralta’s Creative Inquiry team are from a variety of majors: microbiology, psychology, biomedical science, language and international health. They’re focused on the small community of Las Malvinas in the Dominican Republic, collaborating with Iberoamerican University (UNIBE), a university that Clemson has partnered with for nine years.

Peralta characterizes Las Malvinas as “the poorest of the poor,” with per capita income at a third of the average in the Dominican Republic. The literacy rate is lower than the country at large. The community is bordered on one side by an industrial complex with significant environmental contamination and on the other side by a beautiful ecological park not currently being used for the village’s benefit or economic development due to lack of security and other factors. The team is doing health research, combining public health with social sciences with a goal of discovering ways to improve communities in a more sustainable way.

“First,” says Peralta, “we needed to understand the challenges and factors perpetuating the poor conditions.” The team spent fall semester learning what it means to conduct a community health assessment. That assessment, said Peralta, would need to be combined with an assets assessment, based on the belief that no matter how poor the community, there are assets that allow them to help from within.
They began with a Centers for Disease Control community development research protocol and translated that to take into account public health priorities of another country. They worked in teams of four to develop a protocol based on vector-borne diseases, sanitation, vaccination-preventable diseases, education and unwanted pregnancy.
This spring, the team refined their research methods and prepared to head to the Dominican Republic and Las Malvinas to put that protocol into practice. But before they left, they were able to meet the Dominican students who would be their partners in the research process. Using a program called Adobe Connect and the large media screens, the Dominican students were virtual participants in the Watt Center classroom, getting to know the Clemson students with whom they’d soon spend five days.
The organization providing logistics for the trip also made a virtual trip to the Watt Center, connecting remotely to conduct an orientation, provide details and address all the questions college students would have.
Over spring break, seven members of the team traveled to the Dominican Republic to conduct door-to-door surveys with UNIBE students, asking about risk factors, presence of illness and local assets. They also used their phones with a GIS app to collect this household-based data and actually mark things like accumulations of water and trash, putting those on the map and allowing them to tie risk factors to the presence of illness.
With only 986 households, Las Malvinas is small enough that students were able to go to every other house. In addition, they held focus groups with community members and interviewed specific community leaders. This spring, they’re analyzing the qualitative and quantitative data they gathered.

Fall semester, they’ll use that data to design a community health improvement plan, prepare their results for presentation and work with a coalition in the Dominican Republic and, hopefully, on campus. The idea is, according to Peralta, to “put that data to work and try to bring about change.” She hopes the findings will inspire other Creative Inquiry teams at Clemson to be part of the solution, partnering with Las Malvinas to build a healthier community there.

Noah, Andrew, Sarah, Chloe, Courtney, and Ana (left to right) at the UNIBE furgon where community members and kids met everyday during their week of research in Las Malvinas II.
View a slide show of the spring break trip to the Dominican Republic.

  • Quintessentially Clemson

Classes in the Watt Center range from general engineering to communication studies and from GIS and 3-D modeling to nursing. All throughout the building there are groupings of chairs and tables, usually underneath screens with the same capabilities as the large media screens in the classrooms. Thomas Green Clemson’s vision of educating young men has been translated into a code of collaboration that crosses traditional lines of departments and disciplines. Clearly, Charles Watt’s vision for the building is being realized.

The Watt Center looks unlike any other building on the Clemson campus. But at the same time it is quintessentially Clemson. You can almost hear the words of the national television ad that ran during last year’s football season echoing in your head as you wander the halls: “What’s next? It’s bold, it’s strong, and it is orange. Clemson. We are ready for what comes next.”

— Nancy Spitler


Enjoy the grand opening of the Watt Family Innovation Center:

View a slide show from the grand opening of the Watt Family Innovation Center.