Teaching Students about Real Product Development

Teaching Students about Real Product Development

As part of our community outreach efforts, Syncroness engages with local universities in a variety of ways, one of which is guest lecturing. We’ve found that this is both a teaching experience, and a valuable learning experience. To help explain why you might want to try incorporating teaching into your own outreach projects, let’s look at one of my recent guest lecturing experiences.

What They Get Out of It

First off, a little context. My guest lecture was part of a graduate class on Advanced Engineering Design Methods taught by Jered Dean, Teaching Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Mines. The students in this class are the people that you might have hired out of undergrad if they hadn’t decided to go to graduate school. They’re now at one of the top-rated engineering schools in the country, and will soon be designing and building prototypes for industry sponsored real-world design problems.

I’ve found that there are three major things that students get out of an industry presence:

  • A better understanding of the “real world” of engineering design
  • A chance to compare and contrast different companies
  • Exposure to industry-specific knowledge

One of the most important things you can provide to students is lessons learned from real-world experience. The tools and techniques used in industry are constantly changing and improving, and it takes time for these changes to reach academia. You can help bridge this gap by simply talking about the things you know and do every day. In the Advanced Engineering Design Methods class, the students were very interested in some of the tools that we use at Syncroness. They were particularly interested in how we use Trello to manage projects, and eager to understand how they could use it to help manage their own projects.

Another useful thing you can give students is a better understanding of the variation in design approaches between different companies. Every company has its own spin on product development (we know, because we work with many companies every year, and sometimes work within their systems). This is not something that can be taught effectively by talking about it in the abstract. But if students are directly exposed to different companies, they get to see concrete examples that show them that there’s not a consensus on everything, which can help steer them to the right fit in their careers after they graduate.

Something I didn’t expect to be teaching was the business side of a product development company. I was surprised by how many of the questions I got were less about product development, and more about how Syncroness works. “How do you find companies to work with?” “How do you quote a project?” “How do you decide who works on what?” This industry-specific knowledge can only come from one place – you, the industry.

What You Get Out of It

It’s great to help shepherd the next generation of engineers into their future careers, but you’ll also get some other benefits out of teaching students:

  • An understanding of where they’re coming from
  • A chance to establish relationships in academia
  • An inexpensive marketing opportunity

One of my biggest eye openers was that senior design projects haven’t changed much since I graduated college. The students (remember, these are graduate students) had little to no idea that there are different product development philosophies and methodologies. In the past, most of them were simply thrown into groups, given a problem, and then jumped straight into design and build. Our experience in industry shows us that this is one of the best ways to waste time and create chaos, but the students simply don’t know any better. This is what we, the industry, are receiving from our schools. Seeing this firsthand may change your approach to training new hires that are straight out of school.

But you don’t have to wait until students graduate to influence their training. By getting involved and working with teachers at universities, you establish relationships that are mutually beneficial. The teachers get a window into current industry practices that they might not otherwise know about. You can gain better insight into the topics being covered by academia, understand how they are improving the curriculum, and perhaps even influence curriculum changes. This can help you target universities with curricula that align with your job needs and way of doing business.

Beyond the opportunities for understanding and influencing the current state of engineering education, volunteer teaching is a great way to advertise your company locally, especially if your company is relatively small. You may not have much (or any) budget for marketing. Guest lectures are a low-cost way to get the word out to faculty and graduating students that you exist. We’ve found that word of mouth is one of the most powerful ways to acquire new customers. For added marketing impact, you can even blog about your teaching experiences.

 

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