SEMA News - August 2009

By Steve Campbell

Private-Sector-Sponsored Projects Join Students and the Real World

SEMA NEWS-AUGUST 2009-BUSINESSWhat if your company had access to some of the brightest minds in your field? What if those minds, students at a major university, were allowed to focus on the creation and development of a product to which your company might eventually have marketing rights? What if the result was bottom-line revenue?

In most cases, university students learn theory and perhaps gain laboratory experience yet are rarely immersed in complete real-world problems and solutions until they leave academia and start earning a paycheck. Until a few years ago, Texas A&M University followed that model. But then a team within the school’s Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Technology department reconsidered their approach.

“We had the typical engineering course in the final semester, where each student was tasked with an open-ended Senior Design Project,” said Dr. Joe Morgan, one of the department’s professors and a main supporter of the change. “I refer to those as ‘trashcan projects.’ You do them, you hand them in to your faculty member, and he promptly throws them in the trashcan because they have no residual value.”

Morgan and his colleagues felt that there had to be a better way, and they began to transition from the one-semester course to a two-semester track that is now referred to as the Capstone Design Experience. The concept is to get students involved in outside projects that can be taken to the marketplace, allowing them to learn not only about their core subject but also about business practices.

“Within Capstone, a group of three or four students begins a simulated start-up company,” Morgan explained. “They have to come up with an idea and transition it to a fully functional working prototype for test, evaluation and consideration for commercialization. But as we began doing this, the student teams created more and more intellectual property each semester. The capabilities of the teams and their ability to produce something of value kept increasing.”

SEMA NEWS-AUGUST 2009-BUSINESS 

One of the E4 projects resulted in a Painless Performance product—Diesel MD, a module for diesel-powered vehicles that allows performance adjustments to either increase torque or fuel efficiency.  

Through a fortuitous link between one of the university’s professors and SEMA-member company Painless Performance, the school gradually evolved a form of the Capstone program into what is now called the Engineering Entrepreneurial Educational Experience (E4), which allows a company in the private sector to sponsor a project for one or more of the student teams that starts each senior semester. The students turn over their intellectual property rights to the university, which makes them inventors. While the students retain first right of refusal to their intellectual property, the sponsor has second right and the university third. If A&M licenses the intellectual property to a private company for commercialization, part of the royalty fee is distributed to the students who developed the prototype.

Dennis Overholser, one of the founders of Painless Performance, said that four projects have now been sponsored by his company. One of the E4 projects has already been converted into a Painless Performance product—Diesel MD, a module for diesel-powered vehicles that allows performance adjustments to either increase torque or fuel efficiency. A second product is in the final stages of testing, and a third is going to be developed by the student team that created it. The students will form their own company and sell the product through Painless Performance.

“Each team has a student who knows his stuff about a particular facet,” Overholser said. “One may know hardware, another knows telecommunications, another knows software programming, and one may know about building circuit boards. These teams choose a project based on something they’re interested in or a suggestion by an outside source like Painless or a faculty idea. They take it from concept to working prototype. If they don’t finish the product, they don’t graduate.”

Student teams have developed a wide array of prototypes for different industries. One Texas A&M pseudo company, P.W.L.S. Innovations, developed a product called ExacTrak for first responders such as firefighters or military personnel. It allows people’s movements to be tracked within buildings—previously impossible even with GPS, which is blocked by solid obstacles—to monitor their whereabouts and help ensure their safety. Another team, known as Dynamic Design, developed a device for air sampling of CO2 within large structures, both for hazardous levels and for compliance with EPA regulations.

“We don’t just talk about and theorize about things,” explained Chris Landry of the P.W.L.S. Innovations group. “We put things together and really make things function. Taking away that experience will help make us better people in the workplace.”

SEMA NEWS-AUGUST 2009-BUSINESS 

The Capstone/E4 program at Texas A&M University allows students to become involved in outside projects that can be taken to the marketplace. They learn not only about their core subject but also aspects of real-world business. 

Students learn far more than the theories involved in their course of study within the Capstone/E4 structure. Planning and budgeting are as important as the product.

“Being able to plan is probably the most difficult part,” said Julian Coleman, a member of the Dynamic Design team. “We have to be able to detail how much time we’re going to spend on working on a program, creating the printed circuit board and testing. They’re all rough approximations, but we’re held to them.”

The students also learn the benefits—and hazards—of selecting appropriate personnel for their companies. Just as in a working business, the interplay of personalities and the ethics of the employees can make or break a project.

“We’re not going to choose people who don’t want to work,” said Brad Sutter, the “S” in P.W.L.S. Innovations. “We choose our own team, and we have to trust that they’re not going to fail us.”

The student entrepreneurs are also taught to manage the expectations of their sponsoring companies and advisors—an element that is stressed hard by Dr. Morgan. Many entrepreneurs have undergone the disquieting experience of being unable to deliver on promises made when a development project seems to be going well.

“We had to see our capabilities and look at time versus cost, which is a whole other aspect of what we learned in this experience,” said Kosta Papasideris, another member of the P.W.L.S. Innovations group. “Dr. Morgan used to say, ‘Manage your customer,’ which meant being able to deliver something that would be acceptable and also manageable not just by us as a team but as students. We met weekly to discuss our progress and what was being done, what was late, what was in, and we realized that those meetings mirrored industry. Meetings like that happen all the time. Managing our customer came into play when we were ahead of schedule and our customer wanted something new or better or improved. That is something I will take into the business world.”

Professor George Wright, a senior lecturer and the main point of contact for Painless Performance at Texas A&M, said that working through real problems is the primary benefit of the Capstone/E4 program at the university. He pointed out that, while every faculty member strives to instill seriousness and professionalism in students, there are limits to what can be done in a classroom. In addition to creating a working prototype that may offer commercial possibilities, graduates who have gone through the E4 program have demonstrated how they will function as employees.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, people would interview, and a company would hire someone,” Wright said. “But they might make mistakes about the compatibility of employees with the company. Ultimately, you’re going to have some false selections, some people who leave either because they’re not happy or you’re not happy with them. The Capstone Experience gives you the ability to see an individual working in a team environment, much like an internship. In this program, the students face real problems and have to produce real results.”

The benefits for industry will be immeasurable as more colleges and universities delve into these types of programs. Get additional information about the Texas A&M Capstone Experience and E4 here.

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