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An Interview with Scott McKinley
Project-Based Learning: The Neumont University story

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue November | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Neumont University co-founder and CEO Scott McKinley says the most innovative aspect of the Neumont curriculum is its focus on student projects: "Our freshmen are on project teams from the very beginning. Their first projects are simple, heavily scaffolded, and commensurate with their novice skills. By the time they enter their last three quarters, they're working on real industry projects for serious names that work with us, including IBM and Microsoft."


UBIQUITY: Tell us something about the motivation for creating Neumont.

MCKINLEY: Industry has been facing a fundamental challenge in finding personnel. While folks at big employers such as IBM or Microsoft readily admit that traditional CS curricula cover valuable material, they will also tell you that "our challenge with graduates coming of top-tier colleges is that we then need to invest in about 9 to 12 months in training costs. That is very, very expensive." We've seen figures as high as $169,000 for training and unproductive salary costs, which is often more expensive than the bachelors degree in the first place.

UBIQUITY: Why are the traditional universities and colleges not properly addressing this problem?

MCKINLEY: They have been trying. They work hard to keep their curricula up to date with the current technologies of computing and to emphasize the principles that don't change from one technology to the next. Their industry advisors tell them not to dilute attention to technical material, but they complain that graduates don't communicate well and don't work well on teams. As hard as they try, these universities haven't made a lot of headway. In fact, most universities are now facing an enrollment crisis in computer science because students don't perceive that the jobs for which they are apparently being prepared will be exciting or immune to outsourcing. Our take on this at Neumont is that the "business model" of a standard university is incompatible with businesses. Tenured faculty at prestigious institutions are typically focused on doing and publishing leading-edge research, much of which is several years out in front of current industry interests. Many undergraduates interact mainly with teaching assistants and non-tenured faculty in their first two years. They are in large classes run mostly in lecture mode. Most of their projects are individual and involve no interaction with someone in industry. In short, the business of learning at a university does not resemble the business of business.

UBIQUITY: So, how do you solve the problem?

MCKINLEY: Fundamentally, we regard software engineering and development as a performance craft. Its practitioners focus on building systems based on sound scientific and engineering principles. The conventional approach to teaching this focuses on the science and engineering of systems augmented by short-duration projects that seek to apply the principles. At Neumont, our CS faculty with the outstanding assistance of Dr. Laurie Nelson (a Ph.D. from Indiana University's renowned instructional design program) turned this upside down. We mapped over 400 core competencies in CS into a series of increasingly complex software development projects. We believe that the only true way to prepare students to be "industry-ready" is through project- and team-based learning, where they're working on real industry projects, not just the Tower of Hanoi brainteasers. They have to determine: What relevant technologies do I bring to bear? Have I captured the user requirements properly? What principles apply here? What are the customers really looking for? They do this not just as individuals sitting in cubicles, but as teams. The project durations are many months, as in industry, and scale up in complexity as the students gain experience.

UBIQUITY: A project approach is taken from beginning to end of the curriculum?

MCKINLEY: Yes. This is the most innovative aspect of our curriculum. Our freshmen are on project teams from the very beginning. Their first projects are simple, heavily scaffolded, and commensurate with their novice skills. By the time they enter their last three quarters, they're working on real industry projects for serious names that work with us, including IBM and Microsoft. Overall about 70 percent of our curriculum involves students being mentored on real projects. Contrast this with the 90 to 95 percent of time at a traditional school sitting in lectures. Cognitive science tells us that knowledge retention rates from lectures are in the 5- to 10-percent range, whereas knowledge retention rates from practice and hands-on application of theory is in the 80- to 90-percent range. That's an amazing difference! We're seeing this reflected in our students' performances using our brand of project-based learning.

UBIQUITY: What are some of the other major innovations you've made at Neumont?

MCKINLEY: The next piece is really a simple change — we operate on a quarter system with four full quarters each year. This was easy for us because we started our program from scratch. With this schedule, our students finish the equivalent of a four-year degree, including all general education requirements, in a little under two-and-a-half years.

UBIQUITY: What's another secret of Neumont's success?

MCKINLEY: We really focus on the customer. In any endeavor, it's really important to understand who your customer is. We made a fundamental choice: we decided that the Fortune 500 companies — the large industrial players — are our main customers, and that students are clients who are being groomed to satisfy those end customers. At Neumont our customer focus is not on the faculty, not on state government, not on donors and alum. Our focus is purely and solely about satisfying the employer demand and bridging the gap existing between a traditional grad and what they really want to hire.

UBIQUITY: Has your approach been well-received?

MCKINLEY: It's been a fabulous success: the parents love it (far less room and board at Neumont vs. the typical "4 year" degree and they know we are challenging their posterity and preparing them for a high end professional career), the students love it (the project based approach is building a resume not just a transcript), the employers love it. It's been a win for everybody.

UBIQUITY: What about smaller companies and start-ups?

MCKINLEY: That's a great question. We are finding that about a third of our students would really like to go into small and mid-sized companies, and early-stage companies, and so we've sought a mix among our industry partners. We believe that our grads ought to be able to thrive at both large companies like IBM or Microsoft, as well as with the small and early-stage companies.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about the Neumont student body? How do you recruit new students?

MCKINLEY: We are just starting our eighth quarterly cohort of students and completing our second year of recruiting and student intake. We have about 270 students in the program, which is entirely computer science. Almost every state of the US is represented in our student body. Seven other countries are also represented. We recruit using direct mail to target those students who have done well on the SAT and ACT scores, and we look at math aptitude very carefully. When we identify a potential student, we reach out with a call from one of our admissions counselors to start an interview process and invite them for a campus visit here in Salt Lake City. We hold regular open houses. We always bring in representatives of our industry partners to engage directly with students and parents. This gives our students and their parents assurance that although we are new, our industry partners stand strongly with us.

UBIQUITY: What sort of physical plant does Neumont have?

MCKINLEY: We have about 55,000 square feet of space on two floors. The facility is served with a full Wi-Fi network. On arrival, we issue our students a ThinkPad laptop. It becomes their tool for the duration of the program, with all lecture notes, tests, quizzes, and other learning materials accessible from a learning management system that we developed.

UBIQUITY: The system was home-grown at Neumont?

MCKINLEY: That's right. Software development is our expertise -- we can pretty much build whatever we want. Overall our facility looks and feels like a hybrid between a modern state-of-the-art education facility and a software development facility. The classrooms are designed for a highly collaboratively team-based approach to doing project work. All the furniture is mobile and can be easily reconfigured to accommodate a two-person team or a 20-person team.

UBIQUITY: What's the average size of teams?

MCKINLEY: Mostly four to five students. That's the norm. Last quarter we finished a massive, large-scale project that involved 60 students, from different cohorts, with the seniors providing what we call "peer-to-peer mentoring" of the students in the mid levels of the program. It's very, very effective.

UBIQUITY: What kinds of student projects are typical?

MCKINLEY: XML web services are a large initiative here. So are open standards. This quarter, IBM is extending its highly successful "Extreme Blue" program - a program that brings students from universities together to form project teams on site at IBM. We're pioneering the first "Extreme Blue on Campus" approach where our students will remain at Neumont but work on a project for IBM related to the Linux kernel. The project is managed by an IBM project manager out of Austin. Several senior faculty members, Dr. Terry Halpin, Dr. Tony Morgan and Matt Curland are working with a team of students on a Microsoft project that involves building a sophisticated platform independent tool that will translate models into IT artifacts. This is initially targeted at Visual Studio 2005, but other targets are envisioned. We also have 3 student teams working on development projects with small to medium sized companies.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about your faculty.

MCKINLEY: We have 20 full-time faculty. We use full-time faculty almost exclusively for the core computer science curricula. We use adjunct faculty for our humanities and general education classes, such as astronomy, physics, biology, and technical writing. As mentioned earlier, one of our faculty members is Dr. Terry Halpin, probably the foremost expert in the world in modeling and architecture as it applies to software engineering. Terry most recently was at Microsoft, where he worked in conceptual modeling. He has multiple advanced degrees and numerous publications to his credit. Why would a gentleman with that pedigree join a startup university? He says it's because we're building the next-generation computer science program. He really loves the challenge. He moved here from Australia via Redmond and enjoys the quality of life here in the Salt Lake Valley.

UBIQUITY: Who else would you like to tell us about? Pick one or two more.

MCKINLEY: Dr. Tony Morgan, a "Brit", holds a PhD from Cambridge University in computer science. He worked in industry at EDS and Unisys for many years. Tony knows more than anyone about business rules and the semantics of very complex enterprise systems. He's mentored student teams on projects related to the OMG's new SBVR standard. Eve Andersson is a Caltech and U.C. Berkeley grad. She spent a fair bit of time at MIT, founded a software development company in Boston, and taught at Galileo University in Guatemala. With all that background and experience, she has become a superb mentor for students.

UBIQUITY: What about the president?

MCKINLEY: Graham Doxey is our president and a cofounder. Neither Graham nor I come from a traditional academic background but because of Graham's senior executive experience in his prior career, it's relatively easy for him to make operational decisions based on what's best for our students and partners. There are very few "sacred cows" from our perspective. Graham is closely involved with the faculty and curriculum development teams and with the students.

UBIQUITY: What's the history of your own involvement?

MCKINLEY: My parents, grandparents, and extended family were all public educators. I grew up with education as the dinner table conversation -- how to improve public education, either at the high school, or elementary, or university level. But I was the black sheep, going into business, not education. I went to NYU and Wall Street and ended up working 15 years in Asia. Most of this was in public and private equity marketing, including venture capital. I have looked at literally thousands of different business plans during my career. I never once saw a proposal for a new way to approach higher education. This seemed like a huge opportunity. Graham, Marlow Einelund and I joined together as the cofounders. With over 30 years of technology background, Marlow understood the industry problem or "gap" that existed and how to build an immersive educational program that would address that gap.

UBIQUITY: At Neumont what is the interplay typically between theory and applications? Students in some computer science programs tend to complain about too much theory.

MCKINLEY: We maintain a very nice blend between the two. But based on our project-based focus in software engineering, many people have jumped to the conclusion that we provide training, but not education in foundational theory. They expect our graduates to be well schooled in WebSphere and .Net, but not software testing, reliability analysis, or experimental design.

UBIQUITY: And your response?

MCKINLEY: We have worked very hard to maintain an accreditable curriculum. Don't let our reliance on project-based learning fool you. Everything is there. We cover all the relevant theory. Our students are well versed in algorithms, data structures, architecture, languages, databases, networks, operating systems, and user interfaces. We also teach information modeling, which is not taught in many computer science curricula. Our students go through three separate layers in information modeling, three separate courses in database design and structuring, in architecture and systems engineering and all the fundamentals of XML object-oriented programming. We teach them the languages that are currently in use: we'll keep up with Java and XML changes, and any other developments in language. We make sure the students know the theory by getting them to use it in real projects.

UBIQUITY: Is the student body highly motivated?

MCKINLEY: They are. Our average student is 22 years of age and come from over 40 states and seven countries. Our students choose Neumont because they want to become professionals in the industry, and they understand that it's a very challenging environment. It's not unlike West Point or any immersive and intensive educational environment. Also the project based nature of what we are doing increases student motivation - they see the results of their hard work and can take pride in those results as an individual and as a team.

UBIQUITY: Any fun?

MCKINLEY: Oh, absolutely. It's hard work, but we all enjoy the challenge. We are very encouraged when our visitors say, "Man, this is interesting. Your student body already feels like an Ivy League quality student body." We have students who turned down scholarships at Duke, Cambridge, Bucknell, and elsewhere to come here.

UBIQUITY: Why do they say they did that?

MCKINLEY: Number one is they wanted a curriculum highly relevant to industry. We have that, and our industry partners are highly visible supporters. Number two, they like our accelerated program, which gets them their full bachelors degree in 28 months instead of the normal 4 to 5 year approach. These kids are the digital literati; they don't want to waste time. Most have had ambitions to be software developers from the time they're 10 or 11 years old, and they want to get on with it.

UBIQUITY: What about social interactions? Some people might worry that they're not sufficiently exposed to other disciplines.

MCKINLEY: We promote lots of interaction. They interact with each other in projects and with industry. They interact with our teachers in general education, art, music appreciation, physics, biology, and astronomy. As you know, students and faculty in most universities don't interact much across discipline boundaries. I venture that our students are more skilled at interaction than many from the big universities. We'll be monitoring this and will promote more interactions if need be to ensure well rounded graduates.

UBIQUITY: Do you think of Neumont as unique?

MCKINLEY: A lot of universities describe themselves as offering "real world project experience" through student internships and externships. This vocabulary does not come close to describing us. Our strategy of project-based learning is unique. Few others have curricula organized in this way. The few that resemble this have five-year programs at the bachelor degree level. Ours is 28 months. I don't think anyone has a full-fledged computer science curriculum organized around project learning and completing in half the time. By the end of their program at Neumont, our students have actually built a resume, not just a transcript. Neumont has been engineered from the ground up to be this way.

UBIQUITY: What is your current goal?

MCKINLEY: Our goal really is to scale the Salt Lake campus to around 2,000 students and graduate about 40 percent of the student body per year. That's enormous as CS programs go, but the industry problem we are addressing is many times larger than our ambitions.

UBIQUITY: Do you have any feel for how Neumont is being perceived by and accepted by other colleges and universities?

MCKINLEY: At first there was a great deal of skepticism. Some people thought that software engineering is well covered in the universities and a new program would have an uphill battle. Some remembered that the Wang Institute could not sustain a masters program in software engineering in the 1970s. Some thought we could succeed with a project-based curriculum for a small student body, but it would not scale up to a larger student body. And some thought that a new entrant would never become a quality institution. Many universities have venerable histories tracing back one or two centuries; how can a new outfit match that? Think about Leland Stanford starting Stanford on the West Cost just over 100 years ago. That was quite an effort! If I were living in his time, I'd wonder why I should send my son or daughter to Stanford. What kind of audacity led this man to start a new college in competition with places like Yale, Brown, Harvard, and Colgate? Stanford succeeded (ultimately) because it got Silicon Valley industry to back the institution. We have a number of big industry partners backing us. We hope that today's parents will say, "If IBM stands behind this, there must be something to it." The quality of our faculty and the partnerships with industry are the differentiators that other universities take seriously. My honest hope is that, as Neumont shows its success in the coming years, other schools will begin to gravitate toward our model. We're very happy to share what we're doing here. We will never be large enough to educate all the development talent that industry needs.

UBIQUITY: One of your advisors is our mutual friend Peter Denning; what does he think about Neumont's progress so far?

MCKINLEY: He's been very pleased with our progress. When we approached him we said, "Peter, you have a long history of writing about the craft and the profession of software development, and we really like what you've written. In fact, we like it so much that we'd like to start implementing some of it at the College." He's been keeping abreast of our developments here and has visited a few times. He says he particularly likes our project-based curriculum and sees that it requires a lot of work and thought to get it right.

UBIQUITY: Why did Neumont get a CIO 100 Award?

MCKINLEY: The award was for innovation and boldness. CIO Magazine was looking for organizations, including a few universities — Notre Dame, Neumont and I think Northwestern were honored — that were willing to risk something in order to achieve a bold but very highly rewarding goal. As for Neumont, the magazine said, "This is the most innovative thing we've seen in higher education in many, many years."

UBIQUITY: They appreciated the interplay at Neumont between theory and practice?.

MCKINLEY: Yes, and so have industry representatives. One of the most common industry complaints is that graduates do not have team work, collaboration and communication skills; in other words, they lack what Peter Denning calls the "value skills". Our project-based curriculum teaches value skills as a natural part of applying technical principles to building software systems.

UBIQUITY: How will Neumont graduates do in today's job market?

MCKINLEY: Our first graduates will come out in the Spring of 2006. We're already seen some of our students employed part time at $35 to $40 per hour (annualized base salaries of $70,000 to $80,000). That bodes well. We expect that many of our grads will actually trade at a premium to the national averages both because of the skills that they have and because of their substantial project-based resumes.

UBIQUITY: What do you see as the next challenge?

MCKINLEY: Retaining the quality as we scale up. When we reach our next milestone of 400 students on board, we'll be graduating about 160 a year (or nearly twice the average of the typical CS program). Significant, but hardly a dent in the thousands of new people that the large companies hire every year. Consider the new hire needs in IBM, which employs 300,000 people worldwide, or in Wal-Mart, which employs over 2,000 IT people. It's very time consuming for representatives of these companies to tour the country, visiting 50 schools to recruit graduates. Add to that the expense of training the new recruits in their first year. Neumont will look very attractive to recruiters because of the large numbers of software engineers graduated who do not need to be trained in project-based ways after coming on board. Our challenge at Neumont is to continue to maintain a very high-quality, immersive, project-based experience as we scale into the thousands of students. Visit http://www.neumont.edu for more information about Neumont University.

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