Sponsoring a HMC Mathematics Clinic

The Mathematics Clinic is incorporated into the academic program of most mathematics students at Harvey Mudd College. Through the Clinic program, the college prepares its students for both industrial and graduate work in applied mathematics. Companies currently pay a fee to the college to sponsor an engineering, mathematics, or computer science project for one academic year. Since its inception, over 150 Mathematics Clinic projects have been sponsored by over 55 individual sponsors. Three or four projects are sponsored annually, depending on the number of students enrolled and availability of suitable projects.

Sponsoring companies oversee the project by assigning a liaison to maintain close contact with the team. The liaison outlines the project requirements, approves the team’s proposal for accomplishing the work, and receives weekly progress reports. In most cases, the student team visits the sponsoring company to confer with other client personnel and to provide a summary presentation to senior officials at the end of the project.

Policy on Confidentiality

HMC Clinic projects are generally conducted in an open academic forum of students and faculty. The purposes are first, student education, and second, client benefit. We believe that these goals are best realized under the most realistic team–client relationships possible. Therefore, it is important for all parties—the client, students, and faculty—to come to an understanding about specific confidentialities at the outset of project work.

Strict confidentiality in the industry sense is not feasible within the college environment, where the learning process involves free and open interchange of ideas and criticism. We recognize a hierarchy of company confidences including proprietary formulations, product performance, research and design data, manufacturing costs, sales, and so forth. We also note that such confidences may be revealed incidentally or accidentally in an otherwise relatively open project.

Potential clients should be alerted to the following educational practices in our Clinic operations:

  • As a center of learning, HMC must bear in mind that the educational value of the Clinic experience for students is paramount. But this fact need not be a inconsistent with a reasonable policy of confidentiality. Indeed, the educational value of the Clinic experience is enhanced by the overtones of confidentiality because all professional practice requires judgment in dealing with customer confidences. In particular, Clinic students need to learn the distinction between client-generated data and Clinic-generated data. The HMC Clinics can provide a safe and supportive climate for teaching students how to develop professional attitudes on the rights of the respective parties. Specific applications of Clinic work naturally belong to the client who paid for the work, but Clinic-generated abstract models and data can form the basis of publishable work by Clinic faculty and students.
  • At the end of the academic year, a “Projects Day” open house permits each student team to present its results to a limited group of invited client representatives and guests.
  • Throughout the academic year, Clinic project teams give several presentations describing the progress of their work at weekly meetings. All faculty and students are invited to attend these presentations, and attendance by Clinic sponsors representatives is an occasional occurrence.
  • The faculty and students involved in Clinic work reserve the right to timely publication of novel results generated by Clinic teams while working on a client’s project. Project-related work may be submitted for publication within a year after delivery of the final report only with the client’s approval. Following that year, the client must be given an opportunity to review and comment on any proposed publication. The one-year delay allows the client to initiate patent defense of any innovation arising in the work. The Clinic team and the college agree to assign patent rights to paying clients.
  • Because of the impossibility of maintaining requisite security procedures, it is Clinic policy to decline “classified” projects from U.S. government agencies.

How to Select a Clinic Project

E.H. Clark, Jr., Board of Trustees, Harvey Mudd College

How would you choose a project? I have a few “do’s” and ”don’ts” about choosing a project. Let’s deal with a few of the “don’ts.” Don’t give the Clinic what I call your impossible dream: that is, the holy grail kind of situation that has been around in your industry for years and nobody has been able to solve it. You might say, “Hey, that’s a good project idea.” Well, it really isn’t. It’s no fun to work on the impossible, and part of the Clinic experience should be fun. So make sure it is something that is achievable.

Don’t give anything that requires a long learning curve. In other words, if you have to have years and years of experience before you can even explain the problem to someone, for heaven’s sake, steer away from it. If you have a clearly identifiable kind of project or a large problem which can be divided up into isolated components, these are the kinds of things you should consider for projects.

One of the things I find you should not do is propose a project that is anything in your critical path. I do not believe you should put the Clinic in any position where if they don’t finish the project, or if they don’t have a perfect hit on their project, you bomb out on the introduction date of some product. Get something that is not time sensitive, not in your critical path, that if you get a good start before the semester is over you can go ahead and finish it up internally and make the meeting date on the time of your project. That’s very important.

Now let’s go over some of the “do’s.” My first and the most important “do” is to give something that is really needed, something you really want. If you are giving a handout, you are going to have a hard time hiding it, and I don’t think you want to work on a handout, a crumb that nobody really wants. It’s very difficult to get your motor running over something unless you believe that if you crack that nut, somebody really wants it. People respond to needing something.

Covering the isolatable element, make sure it is something that can be easily isolated. It can’t have too many tentacles out into other things that require the knowledge layers; so be sure you can do something that is reasonably identifiable.

Looking at the goal system, try to get something that will be incorporated in a future product if it’s a winner. There is really something nice when you go down and see a product that has the name of company X on it, you can feel as though you made a contribution to that product. Not only does it give you a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, but it also gives a sense of being needed that is very important.

The other thing I hope you would do if you set forth a project, is not try to just push it out and forget it. Give some consulting time. Perhaps I’m putting back on my hat as part of the Academic Committee of the college, but part of the experience is working with people who have to meet deadlines, that have to meet goals, who have to meet budgets, and get things done by a certain time. I think the experience of working with a company’s engineering group and feeling as though you are taken in as a participating part of it is very important.

Last, and not least, be sure you give the big picture. What role does this project play? Why are you doing it? Why does the company need and want this?