The most ambitious component of the SMU Skunk Works® Program is the Immersion Design Experiences (IDE). IDEs take small teams of students and present them with a real world problem that must be solved in only 10 days. Teams are required to design, fabricate, build, and test a prototype that solves their assigned problem, and then present their solution to a panel of faculty and industry. During the 10 days of an IDE students work on average 18 hours a day, with no breaks. This high intensity workload prohibits students from being in classes during an IDE, for this reason we run IDEs during the breaks in the academic calendar. IDEs typically occur at the end of summer, winter break, spring break and at the beginning of summer. Students give up nearly two weeks of vacation to work on challenging projects for no money, and no credit.
Every IDE will be unique and the details of the experience will be determined by the team and the project. Given this, the expectations and the process for each IDE will be different. Despite these differences, all IDEs share a few things in common. The projects selected for these short immersion experiences will typically focus on innovative uses of existing, off the shelf components and for the sake of time, a portion of the project planning and prep work is completed by the Innovation Gymnasium staff prior to a student team starting an IDE. Teams are given their project on the first day of the IDE. Their first task is to brainstorm solutions, and come up with an initial design. Once a design is agreed upon, the tasks for accomplishing the project tend to be broken up among the team members. Each team member must assess their personal skill set and anticipate what other skills they will need to finish the project. It is expected that the teams will not have all of the knowledge they require to be successful. To fill these gaps IDEs have either a faculty or graduate student mentor. This mentor has experience in the problem area as well as general design experience and their role is to guide student teams and provide opinions without taking control of the project. Once all the skills, knowledge, and tools necessary to start the project have been acquired, the teams begin building. For the remainder of their immersion experience, students will be building prototypes in the Innovation Gymnasium full time. As with other innovation centers, most prototypes go through several iterations before reaching their final state.
Upon completion a presentation is made to the Director of the Innovation Gymnasium, the sponsor of the project, and any engineering faculty who worked in advisory capacity. The students present on a piece by piece basis, showcasing the part of the project they worked on, followed by an overall presentation of the final prototype.
A large part of the Skunk Works model of design is the minimization of paperwork. The goal of an IDE is to develop prototypes, not final designs, so a reduction in documentation is acceptable. While documentation reduction is a goal, elimination is not feasible; student teams are required to develop a final report and present it with their prototype. These reports are both records of the students experience as well as basic design documentation. We encourage students to keep copies of these final reports for interviews. Historically students who take reports from their IDEs spend a majority of their time in interviews discussing these projects, and have a high rate of hire.
To ensure that the IDEs undertaken by students are tied to real problems, the Director of the Innovation Gymnasium gathers potential projects for use in IDEs from the engineering community. This includes large engineering companies, small startups, individual entrepreneurs, and military/government research labs. The hope is to find a plethora of projects that will challenge the students, and at the same time be useful to a customer. In order to engage a large percentage of the SMU student body we look for a very wide range of projects. Previous projects have varied dramatically, from low income housing to robots and augmented reality. If you are interested in sponsoring a project, you can find more information here.