By Ryan MacDonald
What if you were able to try out what it felt like to be an employee of your company before you were actually an employee?
More than just internship, imagine an environment where you really get to know your coworkers, their various working styles, and maybe even integrate a project you’re working on into, say, an existing IT structure?
Well, for the students Seattle University’s College of Science and Software Engineering (CSSE), this isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It’s their reality.
Every year, graduate and undergraduate students from the CSSE departments participate in the Capstone Project, a yearlong program that pairs small teams of students with local “sponsor” companies, government agencies or non-profit organizations to work on assignments that address real needs.
The program is designed to give students experiences where they can apply theoretical knowledge and problem solving abilities to scenarios they might encounter in the work place.
The result? Graduates who are prepared to enter the local job market.
“We want to make sure that our students who are graduating from here are ready to be competitive,” said Roshanak Roshandel, Associate Professor and Chair of the CSSE department. “There are a lot people from all over the country who want to come to Seattle.”
With projects coming from companies like Microsoft, Boeing, REI, Paccar, Costco and Seattle Sound Energy, the Capstone Project gives students intimate exposure with top executives and management styles. But the sponsors benefit, too.
“This is a great opportunity for the company to also see students, observe students for nine months, so when the students do a great job, they are often offered a position,” said Roshandel.
For 30 years, the University’s Project Center, which oversees the program, has been working with the local community by maintaining relationships and coordinating projects, which often translate into job opportunities. And for the students, that’s an ideal outcome.
“A majority of our students are interested in getting jobs in Seattle after they graduate. Very few move out of state,” said Roshandel.
The program begins in the fall when students bid on their top three choices for prospective projects. Faculty members assemble teams based on various strengths and weaknesses among the students. All teams must be functional, though it’s expected that certain challenges will come up.
“We teach them how to create team contracts, to work together, to figure out how to resolve issues,” said Roshandel. In these team dynamics, students develop on the job skills like communication, budgeting, scheduling, teamwork and leadership. “We kind of force them into thinking about it early on.”
Since 1986, the center has seen 700 student lead projects come through the program and around 500 students have been directly hired because of their work with the tech, engineering and software communities.
This year, 37 student lead projects were presented at Project Day, an annual event where the teams show off their completed assignments. One of projects included creating a cloud-based web app for The Lighthouse for Blind that helped replace an inefficient system. Some members of the organization were in attendance to demonstrate the project.
“That was a fantastic learning experience for the students to think about issues that are not technology centered, that are human centered, and they may not have been exposed to it otherwise,” said Roshandel.
“The mission of the University is to educate the whole person for a just and humane world, so it’s really important for us to provide our students with an opportunity to have a broader perspective beyond just technology development.”
In previous years students have worked on projects with REI where they created an employee check out system for equipment rentals, and one project with Expedia went so well, a student was offered a job at the company and helped oversee a project the following year.
Teams are required to meet a certain amount of hours per week where students take on different roles, including project manager. This ensures everyone receives a chance to lead, as well as work in a supporting role or one with which they may not be too familiar.
“We want them to be interested in what they’re doing, and we also want some level of element that they don’t understand,” said Rachael Brown, the Corporate Relations Manager for the Project Center.
Though they don’t have to be an expert in the field, Brown said, and they want students to be challenged to work in an arena they’ve never worked in before. “Because that happens in real life,” she joked.
Brown oversees and maintains the relationships with the sponsoring companies. Many have returned year after year, and some have been around since the program’s inception 30 years ago. “We just honored Boeing, Kenworth and Paccard, and Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities for being strong partners,” she said.
Beyond even just the companies affiliated with Seattle University’s capstone project, the impact of these types of programs are appreciated statewide.
“We can certainly appreciate the work done at programs like Seattle University’s CSSE capstone in terms of both helping students find employment upon graduation and, of course, helping keep the best talent coming out of our local schools where we need it: right here in Puget Sound,” said Walter Neary, communications director for Comcast in Washington. “It’s smart to keep institutions of higher learning close at hand, which is why we at Comcast talk regularly with people from schools as diverse as Everett Community College, Bellevue College, Western Washington University, North Seattle College and the Lake Washington Institute of Technology.”
The Capstone Program is a graduation requirement, and it’s become a hallmark component of the department’s curriculum to which many students attribute their early career success.
“Our surveys of alumni and students that are graduating indicates that this is probably one of the most important elements of their educations,” said Roshandel.