Engineering management graduate students are reporting that “capstone” projects are helping them both learn and advance their careers in ways that are tangible and immediately applicable to their organizations. Unlike a thesis or exam that may not apply to real-world situations or use data from an actual company, a capstone project is a mentor-led initiative such as the development of a strategic plan or sustainability plan designed to benefit an organization of the student’s choice.
Tara Rickerson turned her engineering management capstone project into real value for her company. “I had been working at the company about five years, and we had seen some reduced profits from previous years, and I wanted to turn that around. That was the goal of my capstone,” she recalls. Rickerson works for IONEX, a technically oriented design and manufacturing firm specializing in equipment that protects people and nature from hazardous airborne chemicals and contaminants.
She sat down with Professor Jeffrey Luftig, the W. Edwards Deming Professor of Management, and told him the company was having issues with profitability. “He said to look at their accounting system and overhead and discover true versus apparent profitability,” Rickerson says. “I talked through with him how you find those things out. We had discussed the generic aspect of it in class, but this is not something you can do in a theoretical space, you need to apply it.”
Rickerson emphasizes the real-world and immediate applicability that capstone projects can offer to students. She cites an example of a student applying a business performance excellence model to a homeless shelter as a capstone project. “What a great way to take something from an academic program and apply it for people who really need the outcome,” she says.
In her case, she first worked with the president of her company and got him on board. Then she outlined the data she needed, determined sources, interviewed people, and researched documents. With data in hand, she moved to analysis and produced a 60-page report with about 150 pages of charts and data in appendices. “Analyzing the data was the most fulfilling because you could see results coming,” she says.
When you go from a degree like this to the business world, Rickerson says it’s great to be able to say, “Here’s what I did for this company and here are the results, and the results are concrete.” When you do a capstone, she adds, “You dig into something that’s really going on right there—I felt like it was good for my confidence level and what I know I’m capable of doing.”
“It was some of the hardest work I ever put into anything in my life, but it was worth it,” she says. “I got to dig into something and multiply what I’d been learning for two and a half years. And it was a great way to tie everything together.”•
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