Yesterday, 04/28/2017, was my third year judging VCU Engineering student’s senior design projects. Judging the event has always been a fun way to give back to my alma mater. You get a chance to talk to students, see what the university has been up to and see some really cool projects.

This year was the first year my organization decided to sponsor and mentor one of the senior design projects. One question that came up several times from fellow judges considering sponsorship in the future was, “Would you do it again?”

My answer to that question has been, “Absolutely, but there are some things to consider.” I learned a few things mentoring this year and I’ll go over those in just a minute, but the biggest takeaway I had was that you get out what you put in. For your project to be successful, you must be willing to put in time. I found myself taking trips to campus every other week to meet with the students for two, sometimes three hours. Without this level of effort, my students may have been lost.

I offer the following tips if you are considering sponsorship yourself.

  1. The more defined your requirements are up front, the better. Spending time to clearly define the project and its goals ahead of time will pay off exponentially in the end.
  2. There is an element of chance and you have to be ok with that. You could get a team of all-stars, or end up with a dysfunctional team. Chances are you will have a mixture of talent on your team. As the mentor it’s your job to help them gel.
  3. Product timelines are dictated by the school and you have to be flexible. Our initial goal was to have an entire semester of research, however in my case, students were required to have a working prototype by the end of the first semester. We had to quickly modify our goals to ensure students could meet the course requirements in time.
  4. Make yourself available. Use Slack. It’s free. I was essentially available at any time for my team via Slack. If I was busy, I could wait until an appropriate time to respond, but the students could get relatively quick feedback on a daily basis.

Overall, sponsorship was a very rewarding process. The opportunity you give students to work in a real-world scenario is invaluable to them. It’s also a great way to build relationship with students and recruit. There were quite a few students who received full time offers from employee sponsors. If you are fortunate enough to have the bandwidth for sponsorship, I recommend it. Plus you’ll get some great R&D out of it!

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