It's not uncommon for students at the graduate level to make important contributions beyond the walls of their campuses while simultaneously engaging in their studies. Oftentimes research or entrepreneurial endeavors at Ph.D and M.B.A. programs are the conduits for this blend of learning and real-world experience.
However, an increasing number of undergraduate programs are letting their students apply their burgeoning skills in arenas outside the classroom. "Students do the best projects when they've got a tangible product or service they're dealing with," says Michael Goldsby, executive director of Ball State University's entrepreneurship center.
"Sometimes undergraduates will look at abstract projects, but the practicality of their ideas isn't solid, and I think that hurts their learning. When they can deal with something real they can learn a lot more."
[See 10 college courses that will pay off at work.]
The following are a few examples of courses that allow undergraduate students to make a significant impact beyond the confines of their colleges, while honing skills that may one day be applicable to their careers.
1. Military 2 Market at Ball State: The school has partnered with the nearby Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division in an effort to commercialize military technology. The two-year program, available to the school's entrepreneurship students, allows them to get their hands dirty in the laboratory while forming business plans to commercialize these military innovations along the way.
Some of the notable projects include a synthetic skin that simulates real skin, which will be a practice tool for doctors and nurses, and a laser that can cut through steel that will help free people from car wrecks. Some students are even in the process of seeking venture capital funding in the hopes of turning the projects into viable businesses.
2. Congressional Districting: The Geography of Politics at Clark University: Students learn about the congressional redistricting process with their professor Jim Gomes, who once worked for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Students are asked for their input on various ways to redistrict the state of Massachusetts and have even played a role in public hearings on the subject.
3. Equipment Design at the University of Puget Sound: This year, students were asked to design shoes for Crocs, Inc., best known as the makers of the multi-colored plastic shoes commonly seen on college campuses nationwide.
Once prototypes of the student-designed shoes were manufactured, the class tested them by doing experiments with runners and measuring foot-fatigue recovery time. If the testing is deemed to be a success, the shoes will be on the market in 2013. Another student-driven Crocs project is planned for the fall.
4. Highwire Brand Studio at Miami University—Oxford: Marketing and graphic design students, among others, have the opportunity to work with paying clients, essentially turning the program into a fully functioning marketing and branding agency. And these paying customers aren't merely local mom-and-pop operations. Last week, the school unveiled a new marketing campaign for snack food giant Pringles.
[See the 20 colleges where it's easiest to get involved.]
5. PR Lab at Arizona State University: This fall, the university's Cronkite School of Journalism will begin offering a hands-on capstone project for its public relations majors. The lab is home to a fully functioning and student-driven public relations agency, dubbed V3 Communications, that will handle real-world clients' various public relations needs.
Corrected on 4/20/11: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division.