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Workforce Blog: Developing Career Skills through Design Projects

Workforce Blog: Developing Career Skills through Design Projects

Each engineering company searching for talent must evaluate whether offering internships or sponsoring a senior design project, or offering both, fits the company’s needs best.
Many industries offer internships to students during semester breaks, largely after the sophomore and junior years in college. For students, engineering internships provide a challenging variety of work. For industry, the internships are primarily designed to find future employees with desired talents.
Each engineering company searching for talent, however, must evaluate whether sponsoring a senior design project at a university, or offering internships, or both, fit the company’s needs. Senior design projects are capstone courses where students design, fabricate, and operate a technical instrument while learning systems engineering procedures and training their soft skills. Sponsoring projects supports the universities’ quest for excellence and would satisfy industries’ need to select talent from a large pool of students.
Most engineering departments are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which reviews their curriculum every 3 or 6 years. Having ABET accreditation is the criterion for quality education. One of the relevant elements for a high ABET rating is the quality of the senior design/capstone projects offered in the senior year.
The senior design projects can be viewed as a nine-month “remote internship,” minimally invading the company’s daily operations. By sponsoring a design project, a company not only guides and reinforces the educational excellence of the department but also provides a long-term benefit of improving the quality of the workforce.

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A key facet of a design project is that each team takes ownership of the project and is responsible for its successes or failures—a major learning experience and a notable difference to internships where students do mainline program work where failures are not permissible.
A sponsoring company offers a project topic and assigns a primary contact for the team. The customer provides a goal and top-level project and system requirements.
Students start by learning to write good system and sub-system requirements and finish with a verification and validation of those requirements. The student team operation style is similar to the style followed by many startup companies: each student takes at least one leadership position in a specialty needed on the project. Understanding and mitigating project risks at managerial, financial, and technical levels become essential learning opportunities. Students also learn to do independent networking and problem-solving with peers and others, rather than embracing solutions from experienced company staff. Developing soft skills during senior projects is also significant.
There are many advantages of such an assignment that have not been discussed frequently. Given department policy, each senior design project may benefit from using departmental research equipment, as well as accessing the technical advice, knowledge, and skills of a diverse faculty and staff. The customer also has the opportunity to connect with faculty, which could lead to ancillary benefits for industry. Also, sponsoring a team shows the entire class the company’s appreciation for their alma mater, which may incite some to apply for jobs. Finally a sponsor may peek into other projects for finding talent.

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This list of benefits for sponsoring a senior design project at a college is certainly far from complete.

The cost to sponsor a senior project for a student team versus hiring one intern is not often discussed. In 2019 industry interns earned about $19/hour average in salaries. An intern who works for six months (two summers) costs $18,240—the intern’s approximate two-summer salary. Assuming a 40-hour workweek and two three-month summer semesters, that cost covers a 960 FTE effort. Other costs (e.g., time of mentors and staff, hardware, etc.) are absorbed by the benefiting company program. In comparison a 12-student team at Colorado Aerospace averages about 4300 FTE on one course project, at about the same costs.
If a sponsor of a senior project hires one student out of their team, a breakeven point is attained with the cost of one internship ending in hiring the intern. It is not uncommon for a sponsor to hire more than one graduating team member. I leave the ROI (return on investment) analysis to the reader as it varies by company, project, and college.
Jean N. Koster is professor emeritus in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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