Daniel Latta looked down into the bowl of Halton Arena and watched the futures of many of his former students being shaped.
The senior engineering majors, dressed in suits instead of their usual T-shirts and khaki shorts, were busy shaking hands with the business leaders who had come to see their work.
“This is the exciting part,” said Latta, a lecturer and freshman adviser at UNC Charlotte’s William States Lee College of Engineering, as he observed hundreds of people milling below. “It’s so much fun.”
In the seven years the college has held its Senior Design Expo, Latta has seen countless students hired on the spot, or soon afterward. He has also seen a few of the projects they’ve worked on go from concept to design to mass production by the companies that sponsored them.
The Senior Design Expo is meant, first and foremost, to be an educational tool, so students can learn what it’s like to work on real-world projects with engineers already in the field.
But it reaps other benefits, too, for students, companies and often – when a prototype is patented and manufactured – the public.
At the expo, Aaron Cameron, 22, a senior mechanical engineering major, demonstrated his team’s project, a tabletop signaling device for restaurants.
“Our sponsor came up with this idea one day when she was sitting at a restaurant,” said Cameron. “The waitstaff was hanging over her table a little too much and she couldn’t talk to her husband.”
The touchscreen device allows customers to select when they need the waitstaff, and for what reason. Pressing the water button signals a blue light at the restaurant’s main computer. Pressing the bread button sends a purple light, and so on.
“The prototype goes to our sponsor, Nirak Inc.,” said Cameron.
“We were joking that one day we may sit down at an Applebee’s and see one of these units and say, ‘Hey, we designed that.’ ”
It’s not a far-fetched notion.
Past projects that have made it to the market include everything from new concepts in commercial ice cream freezers to newly designed hand and power tools sitting on the shelves of hardware stores today.
In 2006, when the expo began the collaborative format of matching student engineers with businesses in the private sector, only seven projects had company sponsors, and professors assigned the rest. Today, 90 percent of the projects are sponsored by an external party.
It’s a win/win situation for both collaborators, said Dan Hoch, chairman of the Senior Design Committee.
“The purpose of our senior design program is to give our students the opportunity to work on a design project that will emulate what most of them are likely to see at a first job as a practicing engineer,” said Hoch, who has worked with at least 100 companies during the expo’s seven-year run. “The industries benefit by potentially getting a work product back that is of value.”
Often times, the nine-month-long projects become extended interview sessions as well. Around 25 percent of students get offers from their supporting companies.
“Last expo I was standing exactly where they are,” said Jon McGraw, pilot program manager for Huber Technology, a manufacturer of municipal water and wastewater treatment equipment.
McGraw graduated from UNC Charlotte in 2012 with a degree in civil engineering and was quickly hired after the expo.
Huber Technology sponsored a project that assigned six students to develop a test trailer for the company to demonstrate their equipment to potential customers.
Impressed by the team’s design, McGraw said the company plans to manufacture a trailer based on the prototype.
McGraw said he’d remember their names when asked for suggestions to fill a junior engineer position opening up in the coming weeks.
“It’s good to know these six,” he said.