Students have long relied on summer internships to gather valuable, real-world work experience, yet many of these opportunities are limited in scope due to their short time frame. With the opening of the Dow Innovation Center, University of Illinois students are able to gain the experience of a full-time professional, while the global chemical company gains fresh ideas and the potential of future employees.
“What’s unique about what we do at the Center is that the projects our students are involved in can provide immediate value” said Chris Anderson, who oversaw opening the Dow Innovation Center at the Research Park in January 2013 and managed the Center through August 2014. “The work being done by the students is tied to research projects that will directly benefit Dow’s R&D community when completed.”
The disadvantage of a traditional summer-only internship, Anderson explained, is that a research project may span over a year or more. Students in 10-week internship programs may have to leave before a project is completed.
Eric Soll, Director of Information Research at Dow (a global IT organization that serves Dow’s Research and Development), said that having University of Illinois students on a project for an entire year or more makes training them on business-specific tools a worthy investment.
“It’s a much richer experience for a student, because they have the ability to be connecting and applying things to business while they’re in school and taking classes,” Soll said. “It even allows them to bring what they’re doing for us to bear on future classes they take. Their work with Dow puts the classroom learning into a context.”
During the Innovation Center’s first 18 months, 49 University of Illinois students from a variety of departments—including Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Statistics—have worked at the Center. Anderson said the University’s “high caliber academic programs that align to our needs” led Dow to open the Center here, along with the “impressive scale of the Research Park” and access to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
Developing data management solutions that support and accelerate discovery in Dow’s R&D organizations has been the Innovation Center’s primary goal since opening. Each student team is paired with a mentor from Information Research at Dow, as well as with the specific researcher who requested the work. While the students are given projects with clear parameters, Soll said innovative approaches are welcomed.
“Last summer we did a project review with students, and what really struck me was the innovation they were applying to user experience interfaces,” Soll said. “They were so far out of the box, in a good way, coming up with approaches that make so much sense and look nothing like what we already have here. The students are coming with a whole different mindset from a whole different generation—they’re not weighed down by history or the idea of ‘how Dow does things.’ That diverse mix of perspectives is important in any organization.”
In addition to the outcomes of the students’ work, the Innovation Center affords Dow another clear benefit: post-graduation recruitment.
“One of the strengths of having the Innovation Center is our ability to see students developing over time—sometimes since their freshman year,” Anderson said. “We also have a chance to help shape their skill sets, and the students get to see if we’re a good fit for them, too.”