Southeastern Louisiana University science students will have the opportunity to learn important business and technology entrepreneurship skills through a new program that puts them in charge of their own non-profit business.
Funded initially by a five-year, $425,000 Post-Katrina Support Fund Initiative (PKSFI) grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the program will engage students in scientific and engineering projects supported by area industries.
“In the process, they will gain the research, problem-solving and communication skills they will need to be successful in the workplace,” explained David Norwood, associate professor physics and the principal investigator for the grant.
The project will create a program called SEAL, which stands for “Student Entrepreneurs as Active Leaders.” It is organized as a part of the state's Applied Polymer Technology Extension Consortium (APTEC), which was established by the Louisiana Legislature in 2003 to make university resources more accessible to industry in the state.
SEAL is based on a highly successful and innovative program called “ChemEngine” at Virginia Commonwealth University, which gives engineering students valuable industrial experience, Norwood said. The Southeastern program will create a student-managed, faculty-supervised non-profit corporation that will provide scientific services to area industrial clients. The fund will support the faculty supervision and student participation through research assistantships and will cover supplies and travel with a goal of making the corporation self-sufficient in three to five years. Any “profits” that remain after expenses are paid are contributed to other student activities or organizations or used to cover travel expenses for conferences or other programs.
“Typically, in an industrial setting, scientists or engineers working on a specific project or problem may come across an interesting question or opportunity,” he said. “These scientists are usually on tight deadlines, and this prevents them from pursuing questions that arise in their work. With SEAL in place, an industrial firm can pose the question or problem to students who will further evaluate the issue and determine if it is something of value the company may want to pursue further. Under this arrangement, the company gets a solid, relatively inexpensive answer to the question they posed, while the students gain the experience of real-world research that has value simply beyond the learning experience.
“I've observed no reluctance among the businesses I have talked to about this project,” Norwood added. “In fact, the industries are really excited about this opportunity to build better relationships with the university. In addition to getting answers to some of their questions, they get to see students at work, some of whom may be potential future employees. The students, meanwhile, get the work experience to add to their resume.”
Norwood said the students learn the important skills of planning and the necessity of meeting deadlines. They develop oral and written reports that are presented to the clients who are helping to fund the research.
“And as a side benefit, students involved in projects like this typically improve their course grades as well,” he said.
“They learn pretty quickly that business is all about accountability,” he said. “So, in addition to the problem-solving, critical thinking and scientific research they perform, they work diligently on their grammar, spelling, communication, and presentations that they make to industry. They learn the necessity of effective teamwork. Those are all important skills in any business.”
Although part of the APTEC program, Southeastern has expanded it beyond polymer applications to include other scientific and industrial areas. “We're not a one-trick pony,” Norwood explained, saying the plan is to work cooperatively with other universities to add students studying in disciplines that Southeastern may not offer.
In addition to Norwood, the SEAL faculty team includes Debra Dolliver, a synthetic organic chemist; biochemist Michael Doughty; and Sanichiro Yoshida, a physicist specializing in laser optics.