In Mechanical Systems Design, a course required for graduation, mechanical engineering students at Washington State University complete real projects for real companies. Last fall, project sponsors included Sterling Technology and Siltronic Corporation. Previous sponsors have included British Petroleum, the Grand Coulee Dam, Bechtel Corporation, and the U.S. Army. In the past 10 years, about 90 projects have been completed in the design clinic.

When Associate Professor Charles Pezeshki created the clinic, he decided the students would complete tasks for companies free of charge. But he soon found that no one took the class seriously in the absence of fees for services. Neither students, professors, nor companies cared enough for the clinic to make it a success.

“I realized I had created a colossal failure,” says Pezeshki. He decided to redesign the class so that sponsors would be more willing to give projects to students and students would be more efficient at completing them. He also began charging for the students’ work, creating what he calls the “circle of treats.”

“The first people that have to get something are the students,” says Pezeshki. “They get the opportunity to do meaningful work, they get a reference when they finish a project, and sometimes they get a job offer.”

Next are the industry people. They want two things, says Pezeshki: “six to twelve thousand dollars worth of headache relief and to be able to assess and observe the students.”

The last part of the circle is Pezeshki himself. His treat is the pride he has in his students and the increasing success of the clinic.

Regarding the students, Pezeshki says, “I trust these kids, they are great, they do consistently good work, and I have an almost 100 per cent completion rate on projects.”

The students’ hard work and determination show in the return rate of project sponsors and the increased income the lab generates each year. Three of the four projects students completed last fall were from repeat sponsors.

Students in the design clinic are treated as employees during the course of the semester. They are expected to act professionally and to meet budget and time constraints set by the company sponsors. At the end of the semester, project teams complete a report and make a presentation on their work. The presentations are held in front of company sponsors, professors, and fellow students.

As the presentations ended for last fall’s semester projects, Pezeshki turned to his students and voiced his pride in them. “This is the beginning of our relationship, not the end,” he said. “You are all independent and creative, and I have put my love in the right places.”

Later, I asked a few students why this class was so important to them. They said the design clinic had come up in almost every interview they had been in and that companies appreciated that they already had experience doing real work. Of the five students I interviewed, three already had jobs, one was going to graduate school, and one was returning to his family overseas.