Tapping Capstone Program for Student Brainpower, Perspectives

Meet the teams of students who are ready to solve your business problems

Artificial Intelligence guru Dave Copps was stumped. The cornerstone of his new company, Hypergiant Sensory Sciences, was based on teaching computers to see things the way humans do.

Copps was trying to develop a quick, inexpensive way to obtain a three-dimensional scan of a real-world setting.

“We wanted the ability to walk around the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) campus, for instance, to wave your phone around, to generate a 3D model,” Copps says. “We didn’t want to buy a $50,000 scanner.”

Copps then turned to the UTDesign Capstone program that, for a fee and on certain conditions, will connect senior-level engineering students and a faculty member with companies looking to solve problems.

“For $8,000, you can have a group of students, led by a professor, working on a problem you’d like to solve for your business,” Copps told a room full of business, tech and government leaders who gathered at a June 2019 DRC event that explored artificial intelligence. “What we did is, we took a problem that we didn’t think was solvable. We figured we might have some fun with this and make these students really frustrated. But … they came back with an answer.”

He says the UTD grad students proved to be valuable because they provided a vision for what the future looks like — not just an academic understanding of what artificial intelligence is.

“The result was spectacular,” Copps says, in later hindsight. “We ended up hiring one of the students who worked on the project. He’s now full-time.”

“We went up there on the first day, had a three-hour meeting with them on what we wanted to do,” Copps says. “We really briefed them on the concept and the project. We gave them a clear vision of what they were going to work on. We checked in with them every couple weeks and brought them into our office. It was very collaborative and very interactive.”

Copps is one of hundreds of industry leaders to take advantage of UTDesign Capstone program. Students finishing out degrees in bioengineering and mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and computer science take part in the program.

“Not including this semester, we’ve had 702 corporate-sponsored projects,” says Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean of the Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and coordinator of the UTDesign Studio, adding that nearly 3,800 students have completed projects since the program started at UTD in 2009. UTD teams have dominated competitions against other Capstone programs across the years.

In June 2019, UTDesign scored its fifth consecutive first-place prize at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Manufacturing Science and Engineering Conference, hosted by Penn State Behrend. Since 2014, UTD engineering teams have received top honors in student project competitions at the biennial Capstone Design Conference.

One of the higher-profile companies to use the program is State Farm, which sought out talent for its Drive Safe & Save initiative, and other projects.

State Farm leases space on the UTD campus in Richardson, where students work at company-branded workspaces, access them through passcards and log their hours like employees. The State Farm/UTD collaboration has been in place since 2015. Roughly 15 students have internships per semester.

Some of those students helped State Farm develop the aforementioned Drive Safe & Save program, which gives drivers a discount based on their driving. The app also scores drivers, letting them know how they can improve.

“They’ve worked on a number of projects, including in the [State Farm] telematics space,” says Mike Fletcher, enterprise technology executive at State Farm’s CityLine campus in Richardson. “We have given them a topic to help stretch us a bit. It’s been fascinating.”

This article is part of the 2020 Higher Education Review Magazine.