With deep dives into how to keep the public healthy and safe post-COVID-19, Ball State University Computer Information Systems students have weeded through society’s air travel expectations and uncovered what could be done to help meet them.

For their immersive learning projects, more than 30 students worked with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, owner and operator of the award-winning Indianapolis International Airport (IND), during the 2020–2021 academic year. The second semester concluded with students presenting the airport authority with a strategic plan that focuses on what travel may look like through 2026.

Through Immersive Learning, Ball State Students Help Shape the Future of Air Travel

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to work on a current real-world life event,” Megan Gish Carrico, ‘12, director of public affairs with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, said about immersive learning opportunities. “It’s not theoretical; this is happening in real-time.”

“We’re all experiencing the impact of COVID-19 together, and we’re tasked with planning for an unknown future,” said Matt Smith ’09, IT manager of applications for the Indianapolis Airport Authority. “The Ball State project helped us to analyze society and travel trends to ensure we’re delivering the best customer service.”

Students were divided into six teams. Each team examined a portion of the passenger experience: pre-airport, pre-security, security, post-security, arrivals, and wayfinding signage. To provide insight into the larger complexity of the airport environment, students worked with experts in planning and development, air service, parking, retail, public affairs, IT, and public safety, as well as the Indiana federal security director from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

COVID Limitations

With the Indy airport experiencing a steep drop in its normal passenger traffic at the time, airport personnel jumped at the chance to work with Ball State and its students to better prepare for the present—and the future.

“All of the companies I was looking to for immersive learning projects were reluctant to take on a student project during the pandemic,” said Fred Kitchens, associate professor of Information Systems and Operations Management, and Mr. Smith’s former professor. “Matt offered to work with six teams on six different projects. He indicated that the airport was trying to figure out not only how to handle the pandemic but how to deal with the post-pandemic changes in society, travel expectations, and to be better prepared for any future pandemic situations that might arise.” 

Through Immersive Learning, Ball State Students Help Shape the Future of Air Travel

These immersive learning projects were unlike any the students have previously experienced. COVID-19 drastically changed how they researched, interacted with airport employees, and worked with their teams.

Each meeting with the airport staff was virtual. There was a time when 14 of the 31 seniors were in quarantine. A handful of students had never flown before. So, one student drove to the airport to take photos and capture video in permitted areas to provide a better overview of the Indianapolis International Airport for their classmates.

The only option for students was professionalism and high-quality work. They understood that by working on this project, they were putting their Ball State degrees on the line.

“The airport ultimately determined if our strategic plan proposal was viable,” said Andrew Rattin, ’21, Greenwood, who was the project lead for the pre-security portion of the project. “If they had said, ‘No. This won’t work,’ we [would have] failed the class and may not have graduated.”

This real-world approach—with its hands-on learning and collaborative, outstanding faculty­—provided the perfect setting for the students to continue on their lifelong journeys to fulfilling careers and meaningful lives.

“What drew me to Ball State was the opportunity for real industry experience,” said Jason Craft, ’21, Warsaw, who majored in Logistics & Supply Chain Management and Computer Information Systems. He was the project manager for the immersive learning security team. “The opportunity to work with an actual client on actual problems was really amazing. We networked with TSA agents and security officers. This is the class where I learned the most. I had the opportunity to struggle, learn, and grow from the project.”

How Your Flight Experience Could Change

Dealing with a global pandemic, Mr. Rattin said it was important to take into account “everything that happens from the moment you walk in the door” at the airport.

“We looked at key issues in each area,” he continued. “People are nervous and anxious about travel. How can the airport effectively offer safe health practices to alleviate passenger apprehensions?”

One of the team’s solutions involved real-time heat maps of public-access airport floor plans so travelers can make informed decisions.

“Someone flying out of Southwest can look at the area and see which restaurants are densely populated and determine if they should dine at a different area of the airport,” Mr. Smith said, noting that this could also help travelers find a restroom without lines before a flight and allow them to avoid high-traffic areas as a COVID-19 precaution.

“This BSU project encouraged additional internal dialogue about how to achieve some of the teams’ solutions by leveraging existing technology.”

Other recommendations in the final plan include increasing the number of media screens, offering advertising to drive guests to businesses inside the airport, providing quiet zones throughout pre-security, and additional luggage sanitization as a COVID-19 precaution.

All in all, Mr. Smith said the “wide variety of solutions, from technical to non-technical” offered by the Ball State students were “astounding.”

“We received the quality we’d expect from a professional engagement,” Mr. Smith continued. “The projects were completed in a style similar to what a large consulting firm would present.”

Each project was more than the airport ever could have imagined—and allowed each student to pass the class and graduate from Ball State in the Spring, Mr. Kitchens added.

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