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Course presents real-world issues and motivates students

Students preparing for a presentation

In spring 2016, Coggin business student Christopher Zola enrolled in UNF’s Problem Solving and Continuing Improvement course with the hope of making a difference at a local nonprofit. What he and fellow team members did not know at the time was that their assignment would become much more than typical coursework. Three weeks before finals, the team members were immersed in their assigned project and consumed with how they could rescue more people from addiction. 

"If we are able to get 10 more people to get through the recovery program and remain drug free, I will feel pretty good about that,” Zola said. "We have all these ideas. Now we have to figure out how to make it work."

Zola, business student Erick Malaver and engineering students Brian Gaines and Juan March comprised the University of North Florida team assigned to a City Rescue Mission project with a goal to help improve graduation rates for the LifeBuilders Addiction Recovery Program.

Given contact names and a brief statement of the issue, the student team and two business professionals, volunteering as Community Excellence Alliance (CEA) mentors, visited the nonprofit to examine current processes. After analyzing data and brainstorming ideas, the team worked to identify root causes, fine tune solutions and plan implementation. 


To Zola and Malaver, the hands-on project had a much higher level of importance than traditional homework. “This is the real world,” Malaver said, “and these are people’s lives that we are trying to change.”  


This is just one example of how students involved in this one-of-a-kind course use process improvement techniques to discover and solve problems. Though originally intended to help students sharpen critical thinking skills, the course also has achieved impressive financial results: Over five years, 166 UNF students have completed 37 CEA projects that have saved nonprofits more than $4 million, and along the way, they have improved the quality of life of hundreds of Jacksonville residents. 

These high-dollar results were achieved under the oversight of professors Dr. Murat Tiryakioglu, director of UNF’s School of Engineering, and Dr. Dag Naslund, professor of management, in partnership with the CEA. 

To reach those savings, students have worked on everything from reducing Medicare rejection rates to identifying policies that negatively affect program enrollment to reducing gas consumption. Sometimes one improvement will generate success elsewhere. For example, when students helped increase resident program enrollment at Trinity Rescue Mission, the nonprofit was able to send more manpower to sort and deliver food at Second Harvest, which allowed the food bank to provide nearly one million more meals each year.

Tiryakioglu originally embraced the interdisciplinary course as a way to help students think beyond clearly defined textbook examples. The results have exceeded his expectations. 

“The students not only learn how to identify root causes of a problem, but also how to work with one other, interact with people outside their area of expertise and communicate ideas and implement change,” Tiryakioglu said. “They also gain satisfaction from having helped people served by the nonprofits.”


In fall 2011, Mark McCombs, ’12, was a mechanical engineering student at UNF, when Tiryakioglu called him into his office. The professor wanted the senior to take the pilot problem-solving class, then called Experiential Learning. 

McCombs agreed. He and his team were assigned to Trinity Rescue Mission, which ran a successful, nationally recognized Lifeline rehabilitation program — dedicated to helping break the pattern of homelessness and addiction. Though the program boasted strong retention rates and success rates for graduates, the number of people enrolling had dropped to an all-time low of 15 residents. The organization wanted to know why. 

After careful study, and a semester of work, the team suggested several policy and procedural changes. “Before long, small details turn into major aha moments," McCombs said. "And you could ask questions about bottlenecks in their processes." For example, after analyzing a large volume of data, students realized enrollment had significantly dropped immediately following the day that the nonprofit had banned resident smoking. With this insight, students recommended a smoking cessation program instead of the nonsmoking policy. 

After Trinity Rescue Mission implemented the suggestions offered, participation in the Lifeline program increased to 75 residents and for the next few years continued to average 65 residents.

Five years later, McCombs is still applying the skills he learned to analyze complex problems. He runs his own businesses: Renaissance Jax, a nonprofit focused on coordinating Robotics events and teams; and Mark Metal, his design and manufacturing enterprise. "Dr. Murat took me under his wing and mentored me to learn to see the world differently,” McCombs said. “He used this course to give me a world-class education based around using engineering principles to solve problems for people and enhance their quality of life."

UNF graduate and forensics engineer Anthony Timpanaro, ’14, worked as a team member with McCombs and several other students. He recalled that the class was his first introduction to process improvement. "Some of the things I learned in that class I can still apply to my work and everyday life," he said. "It taught me to look for ways to make any process more proficient."

The unique course is the brainchild of co-creators Karen Cates and Michele Boutwell, who also established the nonprofit, Community Excellence Alliance. CEA’s mission is to deliver continuous improvement solutions to inspire community excellence. Experts in process improvement, Cates and Boutwell solve problems for a living; Cates works in the aerospace industry, Boutwell, in finance and technology. Each has been trained in the Six Sigma methodology and certified as Master Black Belt, the top-tier training level. 

Cates and Boutwell brought their idea to UNF to solve a problem of their own: How to ensure that students learn to use critical factors to define problems before they step into corporate America as employees. "Many new college graduates don’t understand the relationship of cause and effect," Cates said. "So you hand these young people an issue, and they are incapable of resolving it on their own."

After enlisting the help of nonprofits and mentors, the two went looking for an engineering program and a professor willing to work with them. They found both in Tiryakioglu. "As we talked, we realized he is very quality minded, very much invested and has a lot of the same ideals we have," Boutwell said.

Since that pilot course, Tiryakioglu has organized the format to include a series of sequenced lectures, team building and presentations by students about their projects. The training the students receive is a foundation of Lean Six Sigma, a methodology suited to service and manufacturing environments. Students completing the coursework and exam earn a foundational yellow belt certification to add to their resumes. 

Like Cates and Boutwell, the CEA mentors are Lean Six Sigma practitioners, experts in process improvement, who assist students with needed tools and techniques to accomplish their goals. "They are all volunteers," Tiryakioglu said, explaining that the mentors often use personal vacation time to participate. "We are very lucky because they are very experienced people from a variety of industries, and the work they’ve done with the students has been very productive."

Though the course initially included only engineering students, Tiryakioglu and Naslund agreed to integrate business students to the teams. "The topic of continuous process improvement certainly belongs in a business context,” Naslund said. "This course and cross-college approach provides an excellent opportunity for all of us to collaborate in a truly transformational learning experience,” Naslund said. “It's a win for everyone involved."

Integrating teams from different specialties also mirrors corporate cross-functional teams, which often include specialists from multiple areas, such as finance, marketing and operations. "That cross functional interaction for students has been invaluable," Boutwell said. "It added a whole new dimension. Business students had to learn the language of engineers and vice versa. We tell them this is the way the world works."


The success of each class depends in part on the commitment of the nonprofits and the upfront work done by the CEA. The Alliance’s project development team, led by Larry Arceneaux, visits area nonprofits before each upcoming semester to discuss issues and ask for projects. "They sit down with the nonprofits and say, ‘What are your pain points?’” Cates said. "'Where would you like to make gains? What do you worry about?'"

After the discovery phase, CEA develops projects to fit the scope of the semester, knowing that students have a limited amount of time to be successful. "I love working with the UNF students," said Mike Evans, manager of operations for City Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that has provided projects for the course. "They come in hitting the deck running. The greatest thing about the students is that they are eager to learn about City Rescue Mission and what we do here." 

Evans also appreciates having students look at issues from the vantage point of outsiders, offering a fresh take on situations and solutions. "As a result of this collaboration, we have adopted many recommendations in our program curriculum and have made effective changes to some of our policy guidelines," Evans said.

Students are expected to flounder at first as they work to uncover the actual problem. Professors and mentors provide tools and all the resources needed, but step out of the way, much like what new employees could expect from a corporate environment. "In corporate America, generally what management will ask you to fix is a symptom," Cates said. "A successful problem solver has to figure out the real problem. If you just fix the symptom, the problem will reoccur."

Mentors and professors alike have noticed that students move through phases of excitement and frustration before gaining a foothold in understanding. Tiryakioglu has seen it happen time and again, and in the end believes students benefit from the struggle. "They start with enthusiasm, then get lost and frustrated," he said. "We tell them to hang in there and keep pushing. And they finally crack it. The final meeting is pure joy."

For more information on the CEA, visit