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Tackling complex problems

January 11, 2016

Ohio State students and UPS teamed up this fall to come up with solutions to complex problems facing our world during Solve-A-Thon, an exhilarating, multidisciplinary learning experience.

As vice president of customer solutions for United Parcel Service, Ohio State alumnus Charlie Covert regularly works with humanitarian organizations that need answers to pressing operational issues.

He had an idea: What if he brought some of those organizations to his alma mater and gave students the opportunity to brainstorm with a client and present real solutions?

Just what those results might be, nobody knew. But it was a chance for the students to gain valuable skills and help tackle world dilemmas such as hunger and health — key areas that Ohio State is focusing on in its research efforts.

Sixty undergraduate students gave up a day off last fall to take part in the Solve-A-Thon, sponsored by the College of Engineering. They were asked to resolve a complex problem in one of three cohorts — hunger, disaster relief and world health. And they were intentionally paired with others outside their majors to form teams — business majors put alongside those in engineering and public health. The differences spurred innovative collaborations.

UPS executives facilitated a “whiteboarding” session with the humanitarian organizations so students could ask questions. Then the teams broke off to brainstorm and finalize their ideas before giving five-minute presentations.

Ohio State alumnus Charlie Covert, vice president of customer solutions at United Parcel Service, welcomes students to the College of Engineering-sponsored Solve-A-Thon during fall break.
Students were put into teams and asked to solve issues for non-governmental organizations that work in disaster relief, food security and world health.
Students listen intently during one of the Solve-A-Thon whiteboarding sessions.
Students broke off into rooms with their groups to brainstorm recommendations.
Each group was given five minutes to present their solutions. One of the organization leaders for the food security cohort said he was beyond impressed by the students' ingenuity and said real solutions came out of the day's event.

As Covert walked around the breakout rooms, he was impressed by the serious way students approached their assignments.

“It was the most rewarding day of my professional career.”

“The quality of the ideas was just phenomenal. The students considered the needs of the organizations. They didn’t come back and say, ‘Here’s a bunch of pie-in-the-sky things we can do that are going to cost lots of money’ because they understand these organizations are working on tight budgets. So they came back with practical ideas, and the quality of the ideas would be no different than if they had been on the staff of the organizations.”

Covert joined the Air National Guard in 1985 for six years after his sophomore year while studying for his industrial and systems engineering degree, and that instilled a sense of giving back to the community through service. He graduated in 1988.

“I’ve worked at UPS for 16 years, and it’s a core part of our culture. It’s a core part of Ohio State’s culture. And then you think about Woody Hayes and paying forward, and that’s what really inspired this event,” Covert said.

Food security cohortFrom left, Jamie Luster, Rachel Hardin, Lindsey Fox and Armani Hrobowski discuss their solution and presentation strategy during a breakout session as part of Solve-A-Thon’s food security cohort.

Armani Hrobowski, an electrical engineering student, was placed with public health majors Jamie Luster and Rachel Hardin and biomedical engineering major Lindsey Fox. They comprised one of five teams working in the food security cohort.

Their issue to solve: Develop a system that could better track food shipments and how and when beneficiaries receive food in locales that aren’t technologically connected.

“Having different majors on the team allowed us to create a great recommendation that incorporated things we had come across through our studies, and without this diversity I don’t think our solution would’ve been as well rounded and unique as it was," said Hrobowski, whose team suggested using a GPS-centered application that would load food and beneficiary tracking data into a Geographic Information Systems database.

“This benefits my education because I am getting hands-on experience working with UPS and humanitarian organizations to problem-solve actual issues they are dealing with,” he said. “This is something that a classroom can prepare us for but can’t provide, and it’s beneficial to see the perspective that UPS takes on problem-solving.”