The Boeing Company has a problem.

Lindsey Caton, a Boeing vision sensors and optics specialist, has taken apart yet another $3,500 camera that he has been trying to use to document the company’s manufacturing processes. Out of it oozes Boelube, the fancy lubricant that Boeing uses for drilling airplane parts. It does not belong in the camera. In fact, the camera is ruined.

Later, Caton describes the problem via video conference to a small group of students at Washington State University. As part of the Boeing Scholars Program, the students are developing a new protective enclosure for the camera.

Started in 1999, the Boeing Scholars Program provides students needing financial assistance with two-year scholarships. Boeing also looks for opportunities to provide internships between their junior and senior years. During their senior year, the students from engineering, science, and business participate in an interdisciplinary course in which they collaborate with Boeing scientists and engineers on a project assigned by the company intended to depict real-life problems faced by the aerospace industry.

How valuable is the students’ work?

Since the program’s inception, students have developed a computer program to help airline customers know best how to transport a variety of live animals. They’ve looked at ways to recycle carbon fibers that are used in building airplanes, and they’ve worked to understand and prevent interference in wireless networks on planes.

In the program’s first year, students came up with a “paint contaminant detection vision system.” When Boeing planes are built, they arrive in Seattle by train, where they are then cleaned, assembled, and painted. After delivering the new jets to customers, the company was finding that they were receiving complaints that the paint job, which had cost the company about $500,000, was peeling. They suspected, and the students found, that small amounts of soap residue were causing the paint to peel. The students’ solution was to put a trace element into the soap, allowing it to be detected by a ultra-violet light.

The program is the brainchild of Scott Carson, a 1972 WSU graduate in product management, president of Connexion by Boeing, and senior vice president of The Boeing Company. When he was approached with the idea of having a scholarship for students in the sciences, he thought about the benefits of bringing disparate groups together. He attributes much of his success at the company to the fact that he was curious about what the engineers in the company were doing and enjoyed learning to work with them.

“It was fun to get everyone around the table to solve a problem,” he says.

Why not broaden the scholarship to include a range of students from different disciplines, including science, engineering, and business, and then bring them together to work on a real project—something one might do in the real world? Carson was inspired to focus on students from diverse backgrounds by his son-in-law, who is Hispanic, and who became an engineer. Growing up in the Yakima Valley, he was the first in his family to go to college. Carson hoped that students from diverse backgrounds would complete the package by returning to their high schools as mentors, providing inspiration for others.

While a by-product of the program helps industry with solutions to pesky problems, the primary purpose is to ensure that students are better prepared for the workplace. Carson, in fact, recently hired a former Boeing scholar. The students are gaining experience and learning valuable lessons that they may not get in their other classes.

“People think once they have a degree, they know everything they need to know,” says Debbie Curry, a senior in business administration and one of the group of students working on the Boeing camera enclosure. “But you still have a learning process once you get out of college. That’s something I’ve learned in the last month [since starting the project].”

As for Caton, he is eagerly awaiting the camera enclosure the students will devise. In the meantime, he has thought of a new problem for the Boeing Scholars. His biggest problem now is waiting until next year.