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Ochs captures prestigious Olympus Innovation Award

John Ochs, Ph.D

John Ochs knows a thing or two about innovation.

In 1994, Ochs, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, led the effort to implement Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development (IPD) program. Unusual even by today’s standards, IPD allows teams of students and faculty in engineering, business and the arts to design, make and market products for industrial sponsors and entrepreneurs.

IPD, one of the first university programs of its kind, has been featured twice in The New York Times, which praised IPD as a model for the modern workplace with its emphasis on team projects. IPD has also won a curriculum innovation award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Perhaps more impressive, Lehigh students in the IPD and related interdisciplinary programs have captured a total of 11 national awards from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

So it seems more than appropriate that Ochs himself was honored by NCIIA last month with the prestigious Olympus Innovation Award, which is given annually to individuals who promote and demonstrate innovative thinking in education.

Ochs joins two other recipients in the 2006 Olympus Innovation Award Program. Professors from the engineering departments at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Nevada-Reno were also recognized.

Ochs, who claimed the program’s premier award, received a cash prize of $10,000. He was recognized for creating a unique program that fully integrates the three fundamental pillars of successful product design and commercialization: design arts, engineering and business.

It’s an award the entire Lehigh community should be proud of, says Todd Watkins, associate professor in the College of Business and Economics, who helped Ochs found the IPD program and has spent 12 years helping to advance interdisciplinary programs at Lehigh.

“Real change in academic institutions like Lehigh cannot depend on the individual,” Watkins says. “People leave, the best get filched by competitors, some fade to wherever emeriti go. Their programs wither. Not John’s. It will outlive most of us. IPD is firmly entrenched, institutionalized in the curriculum."

It’s a perspective Olympus appreciates.

“[The award winners] have not only been exemplary teachers but also champions of innovation and entrepreneurship, which are integral parts of our culture at Olympus and critical for companies to successfully compete in today’s global economy,” says Stephen S. Tang, group vice president and general manager for life science at Olympus America.

"Honored, flattered and embarrassed"

Ochs says he was “honored, flattered and embarrassed” by the attention he received, but Watkins thinks the award is well deserved.

“Simply put, John has deeply and broadly changed the teaching culture here at Lehigh University,” Watkins says. “John is not just an outstanding, demanding, well-loved and energetic teacher and mentor who inexorably changes the courses of many students’ lives. More importantly, John has irreversibly infected this place, hugely changed it figuratively and literally from the ground up."

More than 12 years ago, Ochs first starting pushing the concept for a program that broke from the traditional classroom experience. For him, the real opportunity was to educate students about the workings of the real world.

“The challenge of coordinating all the people, getting everyone on the same page and getting students out of their comfort zones and out into the market…when the students teams finally get it, when they embrace a project as their own, this is when I sit back and smile,” Ochs says.

“Until that time I can be very demanding, but it's tough love!”

In the past, IPD teams have created projects that include a reef aquarium system that maintains alkalinity and calcium levels, and a wheelchair that exercises its owner’s upper and lower bodies. Another team developed a Baseball Radar Gun and Weather Station that combines the speed of baseball pitches with current weather conditions to tell scouts how a pitcher’s performance varies under different conditions.

It’s been a labor of love for Ochs, which is why the IPD blueprint can be found in other Lehigh programs, as well.

In 1997, Ochs, in concert with colleagues from each of the three undergraduate colleges, helped form what became Lehigh’s “Integrated Learning Experience” (ILE) Faculty Working Group. An informal and self-appointed team of faculty, the group led the development of nearly 50 pilot courses and hands-on interdisciplinary programs in every corner of the campus.

Like IPD, the ILE was rooted in inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary experiences. It’s an approach that has now become the cornerstone of Lehigh’s integrated curriculum: approximately two-thirds of Lehigh undergraduate students take part in significant IPD-like original inquiry activities before graduating.

The IPD model, geared toward product design, is appropriate for business, engineering and design arts students, Watkins says.

“But John was not content to change the culture in just those programs. Lehigh is a university full of anthropologists and biologists and musicians too. He was trying to figure out how to engage students and faculty in every discipline in similar but more appropriate ways.”

Built a world-class program

“He is a powerhouse program builder and has tirelessly focused his seemingly infinite energy the last decade to building a world-class program here at Lehigh,” Watkins adds. “As a result of his efforts, we faculty teach far better than we ever have.”

Ochs deflects the praise.

“While we are well grounded in philosophy and our educational approach, we try to change and improve each year,” he says. That emphasis on continuous improvement is used to assess student performance, the program’s infrastructure, and the quality of faculty instruction.

“Not only has IPD changed my approach to teaching, but I truly believe it has had a very positive effect on a variety of courses in engineering, business and design arts.”

Ochs has also championed the Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network of alumni, students and staff. He is a former national chair of the American Society for Engineering Education’s Entrepreneurship Division, and was a finalist in last year’s Olympus Innovation Award Program.

--Tom Yencho and Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, April 04, 2006

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