Improving Dual Language Teaching and Learning Experiences at Cal Poly


California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) Extended Education recently explored opportunities to improve the international, multi-lingual classroom setting by working with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub). The team used Amazon’s Working Backwards innovation methodology to examine how an English-speaking professor can reduce language barriers and improve the teaching and learning experience for a highly technical polymers and coatings science class for Mandarin speaking students.


In October of 2018, Cal Poly Extended Education planned to launch a new international course on polymers and coatings with the target education audience being located in mainland China, where students speak little or no English.

Further complicating the challenge, the majority of the course content includes highly scientific and technical terminology that is difficult to translate directly into another language.  Finally, the faculty themselves could not speak Mandarin and using human translators is expensive, time consuming, and difficult to apply in a fast-paced classroom setting.

In advance of the planned Innovation Workshop, DxHub staff researched existing real time translation solutions and found that current products on the market didn’t satisfy the faculty need of translating English words to Mandarin in real time. The team faced an additional requirement beyond converting English directly to Mandarin, and vice versa; there was need for translating complex and technical scientific terms to Mandarin, requiring the use of a customized dictionary.

Finally, translation applications often incorrectly interpret and translate words which can lead to confusion and even misinformation, especially when dealing with precise technical scientific terms and topics.

Innovation in Action

The DxHub team proceeded with the innovation challenge and conducted an Amazon Working Backwards workshop with Cal Poly faculty, staff, and native Mandarin speaking students. The team focused on a persona of a Chinese native, Mandarin speaking student from the polymers and coatings industry in mainland China. 



During the brainstorming session of the workshop, the group discussed steps that would provide a high-quality education experience to students beyond just procuring a real time translation application. A ‘flipped classroom’ model came up several times as a way for the professor to communicate requirements and the definitions of technical terminology to students before the class occurred.

Another idea was to create a voice enabled Alexa skill that would be available before, during, and after the class took place to provide a customized dictionary to translate scientific terminology. This solution would provide a terminology baseline for both students and faculty which could be used by the students well beyond the classroom setting.

Faculty and staff indicated the value and importance of involving native Mandarin speaking students in the Working Backwards workshop as it was highly effective in helping them understand the needs of their prospective students.


This Challenge is currently on hold as the polymers and coatings extended education offering is continuing to evolve through the planning process. If the opportunity is reinvigorated, the DxHub will consider moving forward to help further define a solution and move into the prototyping phase of the DxHub process.

About the DxHub

The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) is a strategic relationship with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and is the world’s first cloud innovation center supported by AWS on a University campus. The primary goal of the DxHub is to provide real-world problem-solving experiences to students by immersing them in the application of proven innovation methods in combination with the latest technologies to solve important challenges in the public sector. The challenges being addressed cover a wide variety of topics including homelessness, evidence-based policing, digital literacy, virtual cybersecurity laboratories and many others. The DxHub leverages the deep subject matter expertise of government, education and non-profit organizations to clearly understand the customers affected by public sector challenges and develops solutions that meet the customer needs.