The Future of College Curriculum: Industry Collaboration Projects

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

😭 Please cry for Lucy.

I certainly have. She just spent $250,000 on college. Still, she has yet to practice many of the skills critical to success in the modern day workforce.

Some of these professional skills are simply too hard to teach.

For instance, how do you bring the following competencies into the classroom?

  • cross-team collaboration
  • communicating across vastly different expertise levels
  • launching products to large user bases
  • navigating different stakeholders and interdependencies of project timelines
  • leveraging industry connections into job opportunities

Students need these skills to navigate the complex systems of organizations. The skills are hard to foster in an insular college bubble. So we popped it.

We brought these teachings into Make School. We made an Industry Collaboration Project: students build software for actual organizations during class. Similar initiatives are present at other colleges, but only as a one-off course by a star professor (Stanford) or by student led clubs (Penn).

No engineering school has scaled industry collaboration to their entire cohort … until now!

Our entire senior cohort at Make School builds software for actual organizations — from nonprofits, to governments, to startups, to fortune 500 companies. This not only gives students more motivation, a leg up on the job market, and extra mentorship, but also may fundamentally change the the role of higher education in society.

And, it worked.

Here are the results:

Imagine a world where homework helps other people. Projects have meaning and impact rather than ending up in the digital trash bin after class.

This post offers a go-to-playbook for any school eager to join this vision and launch similar courses at their university.

Guiding Philosophy: Marketplace for Work

Meaningless papers and projects will become old history. Today’s student is more job oriented, and new cultural norms of workplace video chat opens up unprecedented opportunities.

Colleges of the future will create “Marketplaces for work.” This will involve sourcing projects from industry and enabling them to pair with student teams.

The marketplace will fill a much needed gap. As an analogy, imagine a ten year old kid eager to earn money during his summer break. He might offer his services — mow lawn for $6/hr, weed garden beds for $4 dollars — at wages that are below minimum wage, yet satisfy the needs of his neighbors and himself. His customers forgo any lawn service had they been more expensive, and the kid is happy about his money earned. Win-win.

A similar gap exists in industry. Most organizations have experimental ideas or low priority projects they won’t pay for. Like the boy who swoops to fill a market gap, so too can the students meet these unmet organizational needs: with costless support that benefits their own growth and resume.

Schools gain a competitive advantage and better employment outcomes by providing this premiere educational experience. Students are far more motivated knowing their work may have real impact rather than ending up in the digital recycling bin.

Step 1: Creating Structure to Recruit Partners

Your first goal to recruit partners efficiently. You want to reduce the number of conversations to onboard partners. Here’s how:

First, create a flyer outlining the scope and expectations of the program. Here’s our example. This flyer answers all questions you would have covered in an intro call. Now you don’t need to have a call — unfit partners can filter themselves out.

Flyer to Recruit Industry Partners

Second, have partners submit a project proposal via a form (our example). The form structures their answers to ensure students have all the information they need to decide on the project. The form also confirms their expectations and involvement:

  • Confirm involvement — we want to double confirm that the partner is actually committed to investing time in this partnership. Filling out a form demonstrates that the partner follows through on tasks and is willing to invest their time. If they don’t fill it out, then good — they probably would have flaked on the students anyways.
  • Expectations — the form subtly shapes the partner’s expectations:

It also confirms their involvement

… and gives them places to ask clarifying questions:

… also asks for a video to create a personal touch:

Honing the two strategies listed above reduced my time spent recruiting partners.

You can take calls if the prospective partner requests, but this is more of an exception than the default strategy.

Step 2: Recruiting Supply Side of Partners

Here are the strategies for recruiting industry partners:

  • 🔎 Google top non-profits in your town. you can often find lists of local nonprofits in your town, county, or state. Vary the search terms to unearth new results. Compile a list of emails from these organizations for reach out. You can get one of your teaching assistants to do this work.
  • 🌎 Source from your school’s extended networks: involve your dean, career center, college executives. These folks often have deep ties into industry and already have the respect of employers. They can be one of your greatest allies in recruiting partners, even if it is just by doing a social media post.
  • 💸 Collaborate with the fundraising office: fundraising offices are constantly looking for excuses to connect with and demonstrate value to donors. Industry collaboration project gives them an excuse to reach out to alumni, creating a positive experience with the university that can be leveraged into more donations.
  • 🤝 Ask personal friends for connections to organizations who might have interest.
  • 🗣 Ask current students to recruit organizations of interest with the flyer. Students are often enthusiastic about finding an organization they care about.

Here’s a template partner recruiting email I use:

Here’s the second email I send if they want additional context beyond what is in the flyer and the form:

(email me if you want all the email templates Also, use Streak in gmail to make sending template emails easy.)

The form and flyer do most of the communicating for you.

We’ve had some partners return for a second year of collaboration. This means that as our program scales, so too will the opportunities!

Step 3: Student Demand Side Prep

Now, we enable the formation of students teams to pair with industry partners.

The tools to do so are as followed:

  1. 🙌🏼 Make the marketplace — turn the answers of the form that the partners filled out into a spreadsheet where students can see responses. Students can scan the results and put their name next to companies of interest. Students can now see which peers also want to work with that company.
  2. 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦 Instruct team formation — official pairings are confirmed by prospective student teammates placing their names in the “team slot” box, seen in column U of the sample spreadsheet. It is first come first serve, but if two teams want the same partner, I have them both write a letter to the partner and let the partner pick. This process is a good proxy to see how effective the team will be — teams who organize quickly and effectively are likely to be higher performing and will likely pick some of the most prestigious partners … the marketplace primes groups to pair nicely.
  3. 🌟Provide team formation tips — we share this tips document with students to guide their selection of organizations. The document outlines the various considerations they may want to make while selecting: current skill level, what you want to learn, if you want more technical mentorship or nontechnical experience, career goals, etc.
Screenshot of the “Industry Partner Marketplace”

Students now self-assemble into teams. Consider commencing this process before the term starts so students have some time to think through which organization would be a best fit.

Step 4: Curriculum to Prime Student Success

Through the industry collaboration project, students learn advanced aspects of collaboration (they’ve already experienced the basics of Sprint Planning etc in early classes).

To do this, I teach them the importance of using documents as tools to define quality work and set expectations with partners.

Their first assignment is a create a Product Requirement Document or PRD (Example). This is where they document their app design, user profile, interviews, and initial map of the site and it’s technology.

They send this to their partner for feedback. The document also ensures they they are on the same page.

This concept is foreign to many students — that you collaborate with drafts, iterate, and strengthen collaboration just through documents. The endless cycle of create-criticism-confirm is a central tool in cross team collaboration.

Example of the Product Requirements Document

Curriculum: Expectations from Risks & Mitigations

The second advanced collaboration framework we teach students is on Risks and Mitigations.

Students list out the risks of what could go wrong in their collaboration. They then brainstorm actions to mitigate those risks (see worksheet here). They are now proactively creating structures to ensure their team’s success. We share a First Meeting with Partner Template Agenda that is also structured to mitigate all risks. Students can begin to see how the structures of collaboration — documents, risks, etc — are what prime success. Students then schedule a bi-weekly meeting with their industry partner.

We also anchor them with a few advanced collaboration principles to reduce risks:

  • Underpromise and overdeliver — always set your goals with the partner a little below your skill level. This way, if you mess up it won’t be a problem. If you exceed these expectations they will be delighted.
  • Set aggressive deadlines — always set your deadlines earlier than you’ll need to deliver the work to the partner. This saves some wiggle room for things to go wrong.

Step 5: Curriculum: Industry Partners as Teachers

Many of our industry partners are professional engineers and product managers. Through these leaders, students get extra mentor and instruction simply through collaborating.

Some industry partners are not technical. In this case, students also learn how to communicate with nontechnical stakeholders and act as the engineering expert in the room.

In both cases, I’ve effectively “outsourced” some of the teachings of the course to individuals not on payroll with my school. How neat is that? Their lessons are likely even more industry relevant and current with best practices that what we teach at the school.

Step 6: Curriculum: breakouts amongst teams

During the course, I frequently poll students on their biggest challenges and needs. Below are two examples.

Example Polls from Class

We then do breakouts for students to meet with people who face shared challenges to find solutions.

I also break up students to meet with peers in the same team role as their own — front end engineer, backend engineer, product manager, data scientist, etc. They trade notes on what’s working and not. This gives them exposure to the team dynamics and technologies of other partners. Their peers’ learning becomes their own.

Step 7: Curriculum: Leveraging Opportunities

We teach students how to leverage performance with industry partners into job opportunities. We go deep into the nuance of when and how to ask for referrals to other companies, as well as how to convert the free work during the course into part time paid work after the course as ended.

Step 8: Scaling

At a glance, the industry collaboration project seems like a dramatic undertaking. One might imagine hundreds of hours spent recruiting partners and coordinating connections.

In reality, it may be more achievable than it may seem.

Key Takeaways:

My hope is that by reading this you are left with the following conclusions:

  1. Anybody can implement an industry collaboration, with proper administration support. You may be able to sell administrators and career counselors on devoting time to support as it will align with their priorities.
  2. Time to set up is net-neutral — extra time spent recruiting partners is offset by the the “extra instruction” you get from partners helping teams.
  3. Setting up an industry collaboration requires smart infrastructure, patience, and willingness to fine tune the process.

Happy collaborating!


Check out more happening at Make School at Dan Morse is on the founding team of Make School’s two-year Bachelor’s in Applied Computer Science college program.



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