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An Entrepreneurial Approach to Capstone: A Factory4U

About a year ago last February I had the privilege of being involved when WSU re-started active recruitment of regional top high-school students via a faculty call-a-thon. We faculty would call top high-schoolers considering college and we would answer any questions they had about WSU, their planned majors, or life in general on the Palouse. In short, the effort was a substantial success with a huge increase in the percentage of these top students committing to WSU. However, I’ve long had an uneasy feeling about one of my phone calls–

The phone rang and he answered. I introduced myself as Professor Leachman and asked if he had time to talk. His response was uncharacteristically calm, sincere, and efficient: “Look, I’m kindof in a hurry. So what’s your pitch? Why should I go to WSU?”

My mind reeled. I was prepared to answer why WSU over UW — a relative response. But an absolute response — answering without comparison to other schools, in a way that was original and definitively WSU… I thought about pulling a Mike Leach and responding with, “Well that’s a stupid question.” — not right for this kid’s sincerity. This was the exact type of student we wanted to recruit. It was the obvious question and despite eight years of recruiting for my department and nearly a lifetime in the region, I wasn’t prepared. The Cougar Nation and ‘Work ready day one’ wasn’t what this kid was looking for. We needed something more.

What students, the NSF, and alumni want from degree programs

Students want the “University Experience” — something that fundamentally changes them, adding definitive lifelong values that shape careers and families, to have pride in becoming a community bigger than themselves. And every University in the US is continually working to shape their brand promise into a unique and distinct experience for students while still conforming with the needs of regional constituents and accreditation standards.

That’s no small task. To give you an idea how hard it is for universities to adapt to an ever changing cultural milieu, many alumni, foundations, and federal funding organizations offer substantial funding awards to promote change.

Last Fall I was tasked with leading the development of a Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) proposal to the National Science Foundation for the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. The NSF RED program offers $1M, 5 year grants “to catalyze revolutionary, not incrementally reformist, changes to the education of the next generation of engineers. Revolutionary means radically, suddenly, or completely new; producing fundamental, structural change; or going outside of or beyond existing norms and principles…”

The activities specifically sought by the RED program include:

  1. Establishing convergent technical and professional threads that must be woven across the four years, especially in core technical courses of the middle two years, in internship opportunities in the private and public sectors, and in research opportunities with faculty;
  2. Exploring strategies for institutional, systemic, and cultural change, including new approaches to faculty governance or department structures and to restructuring faculty incentive or reward systems;
  3. Exploring collaborative arrangements with industry and other stakeholders who are mutually interested in developing the best possible professional formation environment and opportunities for students;
  4. Exploring strategies to bridge the engineering education research-to-practice gap, primarily through faculty development and adoption of best practices in the professional formation of engineers; and
  5. Exploring revolutionary means of recruiting and retaining students and faculty reflective of the modern and swiftly changing demographics of the United States.

Over several decades the MME capstone design program has decisively shown that many of these activities are what our alumni want. Our alumni want to provide real projects that help their alma maters, they want to help us remain professionally relevant, they want to play a role in coaching the next generation, and they want to hire our awesome grads. I would argue that this is true of all disciplines at WSU.

To capture this info, MME sent a survey out to our current students, alumni, advisory board members, and faculty/staff. The first question was “What’s your bluesky vision for MME’s design program?” If you’re unfamiliar, bluesky is often used to describe a wild dream idea that is not yet practical or profitable due to certain realities — in a perfect world we’d have _____. The concept of bluesky is novel enough to clean the cognitive pallet of survey respondents while providing an interesting baseline for the group. Here’s a few responses to what the Bluesky vision for MME design and manufacturing should be:

  • Design for Manufacture courses should be the core of the Engineering curriculum – it’s the class that throughout a student’s time in the program grounds them back to the “why.”
  • Design for Manufacture concentration of courses should taken by students every semester they are at WSU.
  • A program that builds the best foundation for continuing experience, giving graduates real world skills that bring value to their community.
  • A program that will help industry bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
  • Every student in ME would be individually confident and capable in manufacturing design and application.
  • “Real-World Applicable”
  • Everyone being so engaged and interested in homework or projects that it’s something they actively seek out to do.
  • MME students know how to get something made; not just designed, not just fabricating a prototype or assembling off the shelf, but understanding the entire cycle from design for manufacturing to life-cycle analysis concerns.
  • Figure out whatever it is the Germans are doing.
  • FactoryU: Design and Manufacturing Education Reimagined as a Production Operation
  • The best undergraduate experience in mechanical and materials engineering in the country.

Challenge accepted.

What the Germans are doing

Back in 2012, the German government launched a new initiative promoting what they called “Industry 4.0”. Industry 4.0 is the phrase used to describe what is becoming known as the fourth industrial revolution towards Internet of Things (IOT) and cyber-physical systems. The IOT, much like the internet and the prior industrial revolutions, will fundamentally disrupt all disciplines, not just mechanical and materials engineering. The following figure shows a progression of industrial revolutions:

Image credit: Christopher Roser,

Industry 4.0 has four key principles:

  1. Interconnection
  2. Information transparency
  3. Point of use technical assistance
  4. Decentralized decisions

All four of these principles are becoming increasingly needed in any major in academia and by industry in our region that is rapidly adopting Industry 4.0. With this key piece, we knew we had the structure for our pitch to the NSF RED program.

Factory4U: Cooperatively Managed, Data Systemic, Learning Factories

The following is the excerpt of the Vision Statement for MME’s NSF RED proposal:

Jesse’s foot often shakes when she is excited about new ideas, but this was game-changing. She couldn’t contain herself, exclaiming, “It’s a Factory4U!” Her manufacturing elective project teammates looked at her with quizzical anticipation. Jesse continued, “The entire curriculum, all of us, we’re analogous to an Industry 4.0 factory.” She quickly got up, grabbed a marker, and began to draw on the white-board.

“Our curriculum already follows the design process: freshmen learn how to identify problems and generate ideas, sophomores CAD the concept, juniors manufacture the parts and optimize the life-cycle, and seniors work with clients to deliver. It’s the decentralized decision making process of Industry 4.0 — each class is like a separately functioning engineering division within a company. Except our courses currently don’t work together at all. Faculty just make up the project assignments. It could all be fixed if we seniors could outsource our capstone project tasks by working with early courses, even outside our majors, and pull projects through to completion. Just think how efficient we would be if lower level courses added value to capstone.”

Flow structure for the Factory4U.

Jesse’s teammate chimed in, “The design classes form a spine of professional practice throughout seven of the eight semesters of the curriculum that would help sophomores and juniors. I might not have made it through my sophomore year without a senior mentor. But what will I do with all the extra time in capstone?”

Jesse was ready, “Manage the experience for your clients. We can revise and optimize as needed. What’s more, if we moved Senior Design forward by one semester, we’d be able to test our prototypes in the Experimental Design course before delivery. We’d also be able to work with other majors in year-long capstones. Why are we not doing this already?”

Her first teammate raises an eyebrow,“It’s logistically complex. We only have a couple of faculty members running capstone. For this to be successful, you’d need an incredible management system.”

Jesse thought for a moment, “We could form a cooperative within the university. It’s like the food cooperative back home, or the local ag cooperative, that coordinate the efforts of many producers to sustain the members — and everyone gets a vote. We could elect students from all of the design and manufacturing courses to be on a board of representatives with elected faculty-members, project-sponsors, and community members that manage the cooperative. The mission of the board would be to sustain the Factory4U like a non-profit business based on the revenues from capstone projects. We could even bring in business and communication majors for financial and marketing plans.”

Her first teammate remained skeptical, “Isn’t Industry 4.0 also about embedding internet-of-things, big data analysis, and point-of-use technical assistance? How can we incorporate these?”

Her other teammate jumped in, “Crowd-source a fundraiser. There have to be many foundations and big companies that can help us to do this. We could use the funds to hire a staff member to setup a basic Factory4U system that we continuously improve based on future project revenues. There are local experts that we can collaborate with to setup an open-source web platform to handle the internet side. We could adapt our manufacturing technical electives to analyze the data and make improvements to the Factory4U. Our state has a Manufacturing Extension Program with change-experts that help organizations adapt to advanced manufacturing philosophies. They could probably mentor us while using the Factory4U to teach local industry and community members.”

Jesse’s first teammate was now opening up, “I can see how this could work. The default is just the status quo. This Factory4U won’t be easy. We just need to begin.”

Thus was born the vision for a cooperatively run, faculty and industry mentored, community-supported, crowd-funded and self-sustaining student enterprise for a societally and industrially relevant engineering design process spanning over all four years of the undergraduate curriculum.

The concept and proposal are a big hit so far. We received letters committing support from no less than Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. We’ll start fundraising efforts in the coming months.

Getting the timing and resources right

Every degree discipline at WSU tends to have a capstone program with some level of industry/real world involvement. Hence, the non-profit, self-managed student cooperative model is transferable. By combining this model with faculty from business and marketing, this model can be a major revenue source to sustain the core laboratory facilities that students utilize for capstone. The key question is a classic challenge for any entrepreneur: How much money is required and when is the right time to phase this in? Of course there is never enough money or connections and the timing is never perfect or enough. You just have to begin and get as far as you can, as fast as you can.

Funny thing is that along the way, you start to attract attention, you build momentum, and people take notice. A community forms. People identify with the movement as being original, definitive. Folks start to say, “Why can’t we do that here?” and then do. Eventually the movement becomes the expectation, like capstone programs after phasing in during the late 1990’s. But it takes a start.

I want to go back to that phone call with the perspective student. I want to say, “Why WSU? Because we’ve got a Factory4U.”

I’ll be ready next time.

WSU Tri‑Cities prof receives Fulbright Distinguished Chair Award

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri‑Cities

Bin Yang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University Tri‑Cities, has been selected for the Fulbright Distinguished Chair Award — the most prestigious appointment in the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Fulbright currently awards approximately 8,000 grants annually. Of those, 40 are selected for the Fulbright Distinguished Chair Award. Yang marks the first professor in WSU history to be selected for the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Energy and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Award.

Beginning in August, he will serve for six months through the Fulbright program at Aalto University in Finland, while on sabbatical leave from WSU. While in Finland, he will teach and conduct research. In addition, he will continue to manage his research team at WSU.

His research at Aalto University will focus on the development of novel lignin-based compounds that do not resemble an existing petroleum-derived compound in structure. Lignin is a material comprised in the cell wall of plants and is one of the largest waste products in the bioproducts industry because it is so hard to break down and process. Yang, however, aims to use the material to create a range of bioproducts.

Yang said he is elated to expand his research and to communicate the scientific achievements of WSU’s Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL) in the bioproducts sector, learn more about bioproducts research achievements and processes in Europe, as well as learn about the Finland’s educational structure, which is a world leader.

“I’m excited about the dialogue between our two universities and two countries,” he said. “I believe this outcome will allow me to work with professors and students at Aalto University in order to apply my expertise in bioproducts and biofuels technologies. I am grateful that both Aalto University and WSU are willing and able to accommodate this desire so graciously, and I believe it will work to everyone’s best interests.”

Juming Tang, chair of the biological systems engineering department at WSU, said Yang is an outstanding contributor for the graduate program of biological systems engineering, which is ranked 14th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

“Fulbright support will further increase the visibility of our department, BSEL and WSU,” Tang said.

As a Fulbright chair, Yang will address two key challenges:

  • Developing breakthroughs in science and technologies for production of high‑value bioproducts from biomass.
  • Fostering next‑generation leaders on the opportunities, challenges and benefits of biofuels and bioproducts.

Yang has served as a faculty member at WSU since 2009. He has dedicated most of his career to the development of renewable energy technologies, with particular emphasis on production of biofuels and bioproducts from cellulosic biomass feedstocks and other sustainable resources.

His major research interests include:

  • Understanding fundamental mechanisms of bioprocessing technologies for advanced biofuels.
  • Advancing cutting‑edge technologies and facilitating the commercialization process.
  • Improving knowledge of emerging technologies to meet near‑ and long‑term needs worldwide.

He has authored more than 100 peer‑reviewed papers and book chapters and has five patents. He is a recipient of the DARPA Young Faculty Award of 2011. He also serves as an advisory editor board member for many leading biorefinery journals.

Yang’s research has been supported by the:

  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (U.S. Department of Defense)
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • National Science Foundation
  • Sun Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Seattle‑based Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation

He has a joint appointment with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He also serves as a faculty senator and an entrepreneurial faculty ambassador at WSU Tri‑Cities.

The History of Innovation at WSU: Honoring the land grant mission by recognizing our innovators

Written by Brian Kraft, Assistant Vice President for Innovation and Research Engagement

“The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.” -Abraham Lincoln

WSU, as a land grant university, was founded on the principle that we can improve our society through research and the dissemination of knowledge. We have a long and rich history of doing research and knowledge dissemination. It should be celebrated. The individuals’ whose insights, discoveries, and activities have made an impact on the world should be recognized.

Looking around both the university and our externally facing programs, it is self-evident that the public perceptions of our outputs heavily weigh toward our students. The general narrative of WSU and universities, more generally, is student training. While it’s a major part of what we do, the imbalance in the public perception is harmful to the larger mission of land grant universities generally and WSU specifically. We need a new narrative that leverages our existing strengths in student transformation and federal grant funding to realize returns for our regional constituents.

Transferring the products of our research to the public is a core principle of the land grant mission, yet this principle is only discussed in theory and is often divorced from the research operations occurring on campus. As one who has been deeply engaged in both research and efforts to move the results into practical use I have a pretty rounded view of what is needed to improve our performance.

A Path Less Traveled
“The science of today is the technology of tomorrow.” -Edward Teller

I started my professional life as a researcher. This began in my undergraduate days and led to successes in graduate school and a postdoctoral appointment in a national lab. Over this period, I put little thought into my career path: The next steps always just felt natural. As a child I was always pushing boundaries and exploring new territory, in research I felt I had found my niche, so I just kept taking the next professional steps.

It was not until the latter years in my tenure as a graduate student that I began to think in detail about my professional path forward. I loved research. I genuinely enjoyed the scientific discovery process, but could not see myself fitting into the mold of a tenure track academic. While, with the benefit of hindsight, this was a distorted view, I did not believe I could spend a career soliciting agencies for funding to deeply probe some narrow, obscure topic. I had deep respect for the folks who could follow that path, but I knew this was not for me.

So, I got to work doing my own research about what I might do for a living and landed in the relatively young field of “Technology Transfer.” Technology Transfer is a term that emerged with the passage of the Bayh-Dole act in 1980: A piece of federal legislation that allowed for universities to claim ownership of inventions developed with federal funding. This function is not specific to land grants—it is a general function that all research universities employ. It is distinct from traditional land grant functions in that it focuses on inventions with the potential for revenue generation. For these reasons it is not often associated with the land grant mission despite the fact that the net result is the same: It serves to move an idea into a product or service that is available to the public. On paper this looked like a great path, but in practice it became a process of discovery that sent me in a different direction.

Technology transfer is a relatively new field that looks like a random game of collision that occasionally sends something into the stratosphere. Being the scientist that I am, I spent months compiling the data, making the comparisons, looking for trends. I got nowhere. It was random. No one had a robust solution to this complex problem. Disenchanted with this course, I decided it was time to try something new and took a role in an academic college. At this point in my career, I had gained a reputation as a problem solving deal-maker and was asked to frame out a new role that focused on building partnerships with the private sector.

The Root of the Problem
A very interesting chapter in my professional evolution occurred in 2012 that continues to this day. Working for an academic dean within a college is a very different environment than serving in a purely administrative reporting line. The motives and intended outcomes are totally different. While Deans want to promulgate the land grant mission and the associated technology transfer activities, what they need is funding: Grant dollars and enrollment. Outcomes like disclosures and patents, quite simply, did not matter (unless they could yield income, which most cannot). What mattered was income and student successes. It is clear why we place an emphasis on our students as our principle product. The problem is we miss a significant portion of our organizational value proposition—research and innovation, that pertains to our core Land-Grant mission. This is the root of the problem and why we need a new narrative.

I have built a career around the importance of helping the public realize a return on investments in research. We need to tell our story. The university is about more than just student training, we bring new things into the world. This is a powerful function in our society and one that has led to great prosperity. It should be celebrated. The time is right to revisit our land grant roots and focus on how our research can have a positive public impact. The Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors need your help collecting information about the history of innovation at WSU. Please help the effort by telling us stories you know about the history of innovation at WSU.

Please take 5 minutes of your time to fill out this survey and describe what you think is the most important innovative work that has been done at WSU.

EFA Accomplishments in Year 1 — A Review

“We’ve established a tangible, direct connection between university faculty and the general public that is in-line with our Land-Grant mission.” ~Joe Harding, Professor of Physiology and founding EFA member.

The Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors (EFA) were established as a WSU Presidential Level Taskforce in the fall of 2017, following the ERIE report released in the spring of that year. In our inaugural year the EFA has an extensive list of accomplishments:

  1. Established the Innovation and Outreach Speaker Series to bring in high-level entrepreneurial minded speakers.
  2. Established a partnership with the non-profit Palouse Discovery Science Center’s Science-Pub Fundraiser to find innovative speaker events.
  3. The Promotion and Tenure Committee worked with the Provost Office and Deans to develop recommendations for encouraging entrepreneurial activities within the context of tenure and promotion.
  4. The Community and Resource Committee (CRC) adopted an advisory group model for EFA in line with the Association for Faculty Women by-laws and framework in addition to identifying initial officers. To engage the community the CRC developed this website, and created the EFA Social Media Presence.
  5. Began hosting the Translational Medicine Symposium
  6. Took over facilitating the Spokane Innovator Networking Event (SINE)
  7. Created and awarded the first WSU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award for Faculty which was presented to Professor Juming Tang at the 2018 Showcase Dinner.
  8. We planned the inaugural Fall EFA retreat.

It was a year for establishing the framework for awesome progress to come!

Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors welcome new leader, broader mission

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz has elevated the university’s Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors program to a Presidential Task Force status and appointed associate professor Amit Dhingra to lead the program.

Amit Dhingra
Amit Dhingra, EFA Leader

The moves signify the increased institutional emphasis WSU is placing on efforts to translate university research into products and services that benefit the public.

The Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors (EFA) program was created in 2016 as a resource for faculty interested in starting a company or developing technologies for the marketplace that help create jobs and improve quality of life in the communities WSU serves. The program’s new, broader mission will include support for activities outside of the traditional startups and technology transfer associated with producing community-based societal and economic impact.

Actions based on ERIE recommendations

The EFA’s elevated status and new mission are based on recommendations from WSU’s external review of innovation and entrepreneurship activities (ERIE) at its campuses statewide, published in February. The actions implemented better align the EFA program with the university’s “Drive to 25” initiative to become one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities by 2025, and WSU’s commitment to developing innovations for the prosperity of the state of Washington and beyond.

“With this broader mission and presidential mandate, the EFA is evolving to nurture a larger community of creative innovators and entrepreneurs,” Dhingra said.

Dhingra replaces Glenn D. Prestwich, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visiting Professor, WSU Spokane and Presidential Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Presidential Special Assistant for Faculty Entrepreneurship at the University of Utah. Prestwich served as the ERIE team leader and helped launch the EFA in 2016 based in part on the entrepreneurial faculty scholar program that he developed at the University of Utah.

Entrepreneurship is more than starting a company

The 11 inaugural EFA members spent the first year evaluating the type of resources that would be most valuable to the university community. During that process, the ambassadors realized there were entrepreneurial activities beyond traditional technology transfer taking place across campuses that should be supported by the group as well.

“By nature researchers are entrepreneurial,” said Brian Kraft, program manager for EFA and director of innovation and industrial research engagement for the Office of Research. “Research labs and creative studios across disciplines are essentially small businesses, seeking funding, building programs and hiring people to produce something that impacts society.”

While the EFA will still support researchers through the technology transfer process, they will also support endeavors such as developing community programs, publishing guidebooks or other activities that make positive economic and societal impacts through workforce, innovation or community development.

Recruiting new members

The EFA is launching recruitment efforts to include more faculty from all colleges and disciplines, recognizing that addressing global and community needs will involve the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

The ERIE report and EFA also support WSU’s role as a designated Innovation and Economic Prosperity University by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. The designation recognizes WSU’s efforts to support regional economic development and community engagement.

More information about the ERIE findings and recommendations can be found here: More information about WSU’s designation as an Innovation and Prosperity University can be found here:

For more information on EFA, contact Amit Dhingra, 509-335-3625,