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RFID Makes the Grade

At the University of Houston's RFID Programming class, undergrads get to configure RFID networks and establish back-end software infrastructure.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 27, 2005The 24 undergraduate students enrolled in the inaugural offering of RFID Programming, an elective in the university's management information systems (MIS) department of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, are gearing up for their final exam next week. Since the class began in January, they have followed a syllabus designed to equip them with enough knowledge of RFID—from technical and business points-of-view—to carry out successful RFID implementation projects when they join the workforce. Most of the students are majoring in management information systems (MIS); a few students are pursuing degrees in operations management.

"We haven't had companies pounding our doors to hire RFID experts," says Dennis Adams, chairman of the decision and information sciences department of the C.T. Bauer College of Business and the driving force behind the creation of the RFID course. But this lack of apparent demand, he believes, is because most companies are running their RFID operations in-house and have not yet started the kind of process planning they'll need to handle the influx of data that RFID tagging operations will produce. Once that happens, however, he believes they will start knocking.

Dennis Adams
"It's when companies get in trouble that they say, 'Let's go to the universities,'" he explains. When, or if, the companies do, students taking the school's class on RFID will be able to leverage their academic experience.

Vlad Krotov, a doctoral student in the Bauer College of Business who instructs the RFID Programming class, says the students are excited about RFID and really want to learn how it can be used in the real world.

"The focus of the class is to think about RFID critically," he says. The course has been designed as a comprehensive survey of the technology and its business applications. Krotov culled reading materials for the class from industry publications such as RFID Journal, as well as various corporations' white papers and case studies of RFID deployments. In addition to taking quizzes based on these materials, students completed collaborative lab assignments in which they configured networks of RFID tags and fixed-position and mobile readers and established a back-end software infrastructure using a developer's kit that was donated to the class by active RFID systems developer RF Code, of Mesa, Ariz. The students wrote data to RF Code's active Mantis tags and deployed readers in a lab setting using RF Code's TAVIS middleware and Visual Basic.

"The class lets [the students] get their hands dirty by physically using RFID devices, but then putting the RFID technology in a larger context" to devise ways of handling the data they generate, says Adams.

It's a formula that seems to be working: Not one student has dropped the class. Adams says that the class will be offered again next year.

Adams says that a significant number of graduates of the MIS program wind up working for one of the many local oil or energy corporations, such as Shell or Exxon Mobil, which are looking at RFID applications to track large machinery and to manage the supply chain for consumer products. He also notes that Wal-Mart, the pioneer of RFID in the retail supply chain, is building a large distribution center in Houston and that Home Depot, another early adopter of RFID, operates a nearby distribution center.

One way that local companies with RFID practices have been able to connect with students in the RFID programming class is through speaking opportunities. During this semester Mel Davis, logistics director of ModusLink, a global supply chain and logistics consultancy with a Houston office, and Abeezar Tyebji, CEO of Shipcom Wireless, a Houston-based provider of supply chain management software, gave guest lectures about the role of RFID within their organizations.

The Bauer College of Business isn't the only school that has introduced RFID into its curriculum. In East Lansing, Michigan State University's School of Packaging offers an undergraduate class on the use of RFID in packaging. The school also has an RFID testing lab that was opened in 1999 by Robert Clarke, the professor who teaches the RFID course. According to the school's Web site, undergraduate and graduate students use the lab for independent testing and research projects. At least five Michigan State University students have completed their master's degrees in RFID research, in topics such as RFID in warehousing and supply chain applications packaging, and RFID systems design.

This past fall, a University of California professor of mechanical engineering made RFID the focus of a class called the Management of Technology, in which students pursuing degrees in business-related topics collaborate with students pursuing technology-related degrees. The students were charged with designing and deploying novel business applications using RFID.

There are also a number of RFID-related courses within executive education programs affiliated with universities and colleges across the U.S., including Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor Intel has a Seattle research laboratory affiliated with the University of Washington that is designing an RFID reader in a small form factor attached to a glove.
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