Many college graduates complain that in this economy, even with a college degree, they just can’t find a job in their field. However, some students at Oklahoma’s top universities are working with the private sector even before they graduate, thanks to three innovative programs.
At Oklahoma State University, the New Product Development Center has 22 graduate and undergraduate students working directly with small manufacturers and inventors across the state.
At the University of Tulsa, the McDougall School of Petroleum Engineering has more than 40 students working on projects that involve some of the world’s top oil companies.
At the University of Oklahoma, the Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth has connected 150 students from a broad range of disciplines with inventors and private sector mentors.
The three programs have many significant differences, but they all have this in common: they are providing students hands-on, real-world experience in the private sector. Also, each program claims that by helping Oklahoma businesses develop new products, improve existing ones and take the products to market, they are boosting the state economy and creating new jobs.
The New Product Development Center at OSU is in its 10th year. The student interns come from a wide range of academic disciplines, including engineering, business and agricultural communications. The NPDC’s focus is helping Oklahoma’s small manufacturers develop, improve and market their products.
NPDC Director Robert Taylor says, “We have a minimum of 30 projects running at all times. We end up with more work that we can possibly do.”
3C Cattle Feeders in Mill Creek had an idea for a better feeder. Ranchers experience a costly loss when feed falls on truck beds or is stolen by wild hogs and other animals. The central Oklahoma manufacturer turned to the NPDC, which obtained a federal grant to develop 3C’s idea. Since marketing the resulting product, the company reports that sales have increased by $500,000, and three new jobs have been created.
In 2008, the NPDC introduced the Inventor’s Assistance Service. The IAS mission is to “help Oklahoma inventors navigate the invention process from idea to the marketplace through education, information and referrals.”
Taylor points to Fence Solutions, Inc., of Enid. The company developed a new fence post clip, the Fence Fork T-Post, which the company says is “faster to put on and harder to knock off.” With help from the IAS, “his business is just growing like gangbusters now,” Taylor says.
The McDougall School of Petroleum Engineering at TU is the home of nine petroleum-related consortia that give 40 to 50 students the opportunity to work directly with about 60 energy companies, including Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell and Conoco Phillips.
The TU program is quite a bit different from the OSU program. It is older, having been started in 1966, and it is limited strictly to petroleum engineering students. However, the common denominator is that both programs give students the chance to gain real-world experience in their chosen fields.
Department chair Mohan Kelkar explained that in each consortium, a group of companies cooperate to fund research on an industry problem they all would like to solve. Kelkar cites the challenge of transporting “heavy oil,” which is being studied by the High-Viscosity Oil Projects Consortium. Five oil companies each pay $100,000 annually to fund the research, which is carried out by several researchers and technicians and four student research assistants.
“If we can help the industry work in a cost effective manner, they can go into more difficult areas, and that results in hiring more people,” Kelkar says.
The newest program of the three is OU’s Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth. Founded in 2006, the center’s goal, according to its website, is to “create economic wealth for the university, state and nation by combining the talents of interns, inventors and private sector mentors.”
In the center’s first five years, 150 graduate and undergraduate interns have participated on 26 projects, which the center calls “commercial opportunities.”
Like OSU’s program, the CCEW draws students from many disciplines, including several sciences, business, fine arts, journalism and law. “Commercialization teams” composed of faculty, alumni mentors and student interns tackle real-world problems by providing technical research, market research, benchmarking, financial analysis, fundraising, strategic planning and business plan creation.
The center is overseen by Daniel Pullin, OU’s vice president for strategic planning and economic development. Pullin says CCEW teams “take Oklahoma innovation from the lab to the marketplace, often in the form of spin-out companies which generate knowledge-based jobs for the state.”
The teams have worked on everything from fiber optics to micro financing to water purification to a “baby board” for disabled infants. The center has facilitated the creation of three companies. The center’s Software Business Accelerator aids the creation and launch of software-based products and businesses.