Archived Business Engagement Center Articles
The secret advantage on campus that we want you to know about

While our advice is tailored to the needs and priorities of the company, some of our general advice is for companies to brand themselves to specific student “customer segments” and to build personal, experience-based relationships with students.

One of our favorites is the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) in the College of Engineering.

MDP provides students with vetted engineering design project opportunities, matching teams of 5-7 qualified students from schools across campus with customers from a variety of organizations to develop practical design skills while delivering results that have significant impact for the sponsoring organization over the course of the two-semester project.

Yes, MDP can help you recruit top talent, but the program can help your organization solve some serious business issues.

“It’s a win-win program,” says Stella Wixom, Senior Executive Director of the Business Engagement Center. Students get the opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge in a real-world environment, and the multidisciplinary approach leads to critical cost saving opportunities or business solutions for the companies, while the company gets the chance to work seamlessly with students they may want to hire.”

35-40 companies a year take advantage of the opportunity. The variety of industries participating represents the diverse needs for interdisciplinary business solutions. From automotive to information technology to financial services, the complex demand for creative forward-thinking across industries is the true bottom line for MDP participants.

Most companies are repeaters in the program, and student demand to participate from schools across campus exceeds capacity for the program.


The Recruiting Edge

Union Pacific sponsors a team year after year, leveraging creative problem solving with access to students. “Our participation with MDP allows us to create and maintain a solid recruiting base at one of the top Engineering schools in the country. Beyond that, we are able to make progress on the development of important financial systems by utilizing the skills of the U-M students,” shares Dani Lucht, lead of IT at Union Pacific Railroad.

JP Morgan agrees and has hired full-time 45 U-M students over the last eight years.

“Participating in the MDP Program is a no-lose situation. It is a program I would recommend to anyone interested – you will never be disappointed,” says Todd Ippen, executive champion for the U-M relationship and Executive Director of Wholesale Loan Technology at JP Morgan.


Blown Away

Ippen’s experience reflects how the integration of fresh minds with specific business challenges can deliver creative and on target results from the student teams.

“Every project that we offer for the MDP program are real projects that will solve an immediate business need for the firm. The first JPMorgan Chase team set the bar really high by beginning production preparation activities in November of their project year.  Every MDP project team since has kept improving their delivery timelines, where now August has become the norm. The continued success of the MDP teams at JP Morgan is widely noticed and appreciated. The 2019 team had an opportunity to present their project to their line of business CEO. He was so impressed with the work the students completed, he wanted to offer each of them full time jobs on the spot.”

ProQuest continues to sponsor MDP teams year after year. With some solidly designed projects and some experimental ideas, they use the MDP program as project validity and testing environment. CTO Roger Valade says, “The interns which we have been able to draw from MDP have been some of the best interns which we have had at ProQuest. They are talented, ambitious, and eager to take on challenging, out-of-the-comfort-zone work.”

Valade says, “Every year there are at least one or two students who really stand out as people who will have an impact on the industry. The students who bring the most energy and enthusiasm tend to contribute the most and also get the most out of the project. We’ve tended to get the best production out of undergrads, on par with the grad students involved.”


Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Tyler Cialek (‘16) was a masters student in Industrial and Operations Engineering when participating in MDP on a JP Morgan project. “The project involved an exciting mix of math, finance, and computer science with the objective of speeding up derivative computations. The MDP experience proved to be a much richer experience than a traditional semester-long project or summer internship.  I received coaching from my very intelligent and motivated teammates, the MDP staff, and the corporate sponsors at JP Morgan. Ultimately, when I wasn’t offered funding for my master’s for fall semester, JP Morgan offered me a permanent position working in New York in credit risk analytics and supported the remainder of my graduate studies part-time while working.”

Through all the effort, the projects make an impact on a corporation’s bottom line.

Union Pacific has found a great vein for students to sink their teeth into year after year. “Union Pacific has had many successful projects that were started by MDP teams. We’ve completely rewritten two systems, done some analysis, and gotten halfway through a third system. This year will mark the fourth system to be worked on,” shares Dani Lucht.

Valade echoes the impact: “MDP work has contributed to development of prototype text and data mining product pilots which have been used by hundreds of students in several pilot test cases. This is one of the leading innovation product lines for ProQuest. Projects have also been very valuable for exploring preliminary areas of potential product development. Students often bring to the project a knowledge of new and emerging technologies which we at ProQuest can learn from and develop towards.”

With a backlog of students interested in participating and organizations repeatedly sponsoring projects, there is a clear value to the program. Both continue to grow, thanks to strong partnerships with hundreds of companies at U-M. Wixom adds, “MDP serves as a best practice for connecting students to companies who are interested in cultivating their own next generation of leaders. We can’t share the program with enough organizations!”

From Alumni to Employer: ProQuest CTO Partners with College of Engineering

In 2013, U-M alum Roger Valade fulfilled a dream of returning to Ann Arbor when he took a position at ProQuest, an education technology firm best known for online research resources. ProQuest was founded in Ann Arbor in 1938 and had a long history of involvement with the city and his beloved alma mater. “As an alum, I was eager to expand that involvement to include my team,” he stated.

Finding out how to make the right connections

He quickly connected with Nick Miller in the Business Engagement Center, and Nick spent time talking with Roger about ProQuest’s business goals and objectives. Nick identified a few opportunities where U-M programs and ProQuest interests aligned nicely and connected him to campus. One of those opportunities was with the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) in the College of Engineering.

The Multidisciplinary Design Program is a competitively-selected curricular program for students at U-M. Every year, they organize approximately 40 teams of 5-7 students to tackle engineering and/or chemistry projects for various corporate, non-profit and government organizations. All teams are jointly mentored by a dedicated U-M faculty member and a member of the sponsoring organization.

ProQuest started with one project in 2014 but quickly realized the value in participating and has done one or two projects each year since. “MDP provided the structure we needed. We just said here are the cool and interesting projects that we think are worth investing time and energy in, and we worked together to hone the list to determine which projects to pursue. If the only outcome was that we got to meet great students and work on a project, that in and of itself would be fantastic; if the outcome developed tangible merit, even better,” shared Roger.

Joy Adams, Sponsored Projects Program Manager for the Multidisciplinary Design Program has been working with ProQuest closely, facilitating and recruiting their student teams for each of the past four years. ”ProQuest has been an excellent partner for the MDP program – providing challenging and valuable projects, mentorship and guidance, and internships and full-time job opportunities to their students. It’s rewarding to see the mutual benefits of experiential learning happen year after year.”

From big data to supply chain to modeling and simulations

Their projects have ranged from raw software development, data science, machine learning, and user experience design. “Our first project involved user design optimization for a k12 product, eLibrary. It hadn’t been improved from the user perspective in a while. The team went out to schools and universities, talked to students, did design work, and came up with ideas for new models that helped us decide on ways we could improve user experience. The students come up with ideas from such a different perspective; they did a great job.”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, got involved right away. He shares, “Being particularly focused on K-12 education technology, I was immediately interested in mentoring ProQuest’s first project on the eLibrary. ProQuest has proposed a number of timely project topics of great interest to students and has been very supportive of them They have provided access to resources, data, and experts in various fields that greatly help students to complete their projects.” Since then, Professor Jamin has mentored three more machine learning related projects that ProQuest sponsored.

Valade recalls, “We did two really cool machine learning/computer science projects – one taking historical newspapers and significantly enhancing the search functionality using visual computing technology and linguistic analysis to break pages down into articles. This ended up being a project big enough to continue a second year.”

A number of students had the opportunity to continue working with the company as summer interns, often continuing or deepening their MDP work. ProQuest is also in the final stages of hiring their first Data Scientist, an alum of their MDP projects.

The outcomes – for ProQuest and for the students – make an impact.

Brady Zhu, an undergraduate student in the College of Engineering, is on the ProQuest MDP team this year. He says, “Unlike traditional coding classes at UofM where we are free to do implementations, ProQuest set industry standards for us. They provide us with access to the project management and communication tools, which is also a valuable experience for a team project. They actively keep track of our progress and provide valuable feedbacks and suggestions. Their close attention makes us feel that what we are doing is quite important to the company’s portfolio.”

Jason Zin, also an undergraduate Engineering student on the team, considers the experience in industry very valuable to student learning: “Working with ProQuest engineers gives us access to a new perspective of experienced industry leaders. They will point out from past experience common patterns in projects (e.g. this phase typically takes longer than you would expect, make sure to watch out for that, etc.). Besides their practical knowledge, they are always making sure that our entire team finds work in which they are interested. For instance, even though a re-design of the application is not planned until after this year, they encouraged our UI/UX Team to design one as a basis for changing the current UI/UX to make sure that they felt engaged. Our work feels important to ProQuest.”

It’s so much fun working with the students


Roger jokes, as many of us alums do, that he doesn’t remember being this smart in college.

The collaborative combination of faculty, students and sponsor is an opportunity for all involved to learn from each other. Professor Jamin ends, “Guiding students through both the technical challenges and teamwork mechanics that come with advanced software development in a real-world industrial setting has been invigorating and rewarding. I have enjoyed the collegiate interaction with ProQuest professional staff and have invited them to address my other courses. It seems that Roger has expanded his team’s involvement with his alma mater more deeply than he might have originally intended!”


Wolverines meet Deere

John Deere, like other successful multinational companies, always has a hopper of engineering ideas they would like to explore: exciting new technology, improvements to their existing product line, novel product ideas and more. One such project on the list was to develop new and refined functionality for their TANGO E5 Autonomous Lawnmower.  Based on the requirements and timing of the project and U-M’s expertise in robotics, John Deere felt this was an excellent project for some eager and talented students.

So John Deere turned to the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) at U-M’s College of Engineering. Each year, MDP partners with 30-40 corporations, nonprofits, government entities and internal University clients, assembling multidisciplinary teams of five to seven students from across 11 of U-M’s schools and colleges to solve real-world industry problems.

“Students’ enthusiasm, energy and intellect can bring solutions to the table,” said Joy Adams, MDP’s program manager. “John Deere recognized this and wanted to bring creative thinking to the project.”

Every MDP team is assigned a dedicated faculty member who “guides students through the engineering design process,” explained Adams. “They also get a mentor from the sponsoring company who sets expectations for the delivery projects.” The real-world work has direct academic application. “Students can earn academic credit through an MDP project, including Senior Capstone for some majors, instead of taking a class in their department.”

In this case, Assistant Professor Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Professor of Practice Harvey Bell, MDP’s faculty co-advisor, led students through the work of solving TANGO E5’s complex issues which included learning about the products and customers first-hand at one of Deere’s dealer training events.

“The students were able to test drive the mowers and talk to engineers,” says Adams. “Students experienced the products firsthand, and the faculty members were invited, as well.”

At the end of the year, the students had given TANGO E5 new life—or at least an improved sensor system that kept the mower on the right path safely and effectively. But there was much more to be gained than just a successful engineering outcome.

“Programs like this help build the next generation of engineers,” said John Deere’s Manager, Turf & Utility Product Portfolio Planning Lynette Sapienza, who served as a program sponsor. “It helps create a different view of problems that need to be solved.” What’s more, it helps companies like John Deere raise awareness about the kind of work they do and to recruit talented students.  “We’ve hired a few Michigan students post-MDP, and we’re always delighted when there’s a good fit all around,” Sapienza says.

Adams agreed that there are myriad benefits and positive outcomes to the MDP projects beyond just finding effective solutions.

“Though successful completion of every project is a goal, student learning is a higher priority than project success,” she said. “The focus is bringing students through the experience, and preparing them for the rigors of research.”

Adams said the Business Engagement Center (BEC) helps open doors to these academic and industry collaborations. “The BEC has always been a strong partner. About 65 percent of the introductions we make with companies come from leads from the BEC.”

Additional ongoing collaborations include companies such as Expedia, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, and more. “We make it a point in our program to scope exciting, engaging projects that will attract students and deliver great results for the partners,” Adams said.

SOURCE: Lara Zielin


Zuken USA

Thank you to Zuken USA for donating E3.series software licenses to our 2020 MDP students so that they could successfully complete their High Efficiency Robotic Operator Autonomous Drivetrain project with their industrial partner.  

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