One Million Hours
I was in an interaction design course when I discovered a million hours of manpower going to waste.
I was working on a class project designing a traffic controller dashboard when I read the story of Jenny, a girl who died because the patient tracking software used by her hospital was too confusing for her nurses to understand.
It struck me that all of the brilliant minds in my class designing this fictitious dashboard could instead be put to work solving real problems, like designing patient tracking software for hospitals that doesn’t kill people with its complexity.
50 kids were each spending 20 or more hours on this project over the course of four weeks. That’s 1,000 hours wasted in a month.
They could design some damn good patient tracking software in a thousand hours.
That figure only accounts for one class working on one of several projects. Let’s take a conservative estimate and say that there are 1,000 project-based classrooms in the entire United States. That’s 1,000 classrooms x 1,000 hours = one million hours lost every month by students tackling fictitious problems instead of real ones.
One million hours.
Imagine the problems that could be solved if we properly harnessed that manpower.
What’s the culprit?
Project-based learning is one of the hottest trends in education over the last decade.
Here’s how it works: Teachers lecture on a topic, and then students apply that knowledge to a project, typically involving fictional characters facing fictional problems. It’s more hands-on than traditional methods and is backed by experts as being a more effective teaching strategy. 
It’s tough to criticize project-based courses because they’re so close to being great. But they’re missing a crucial element, and the result is millions of valuable hours going to waste.
How can this be fixed?
When it’s time for students to apply their knowledge to a project, instead of a fictional problem, the project assignment should be supplied by a company and involve a real problem the company is trying to solve.
Students would get to work on solving a real problem, with the same grading and evaluation criteria as when they’re doing the fictitious projects. When they submit their final proposals, one copy goes to their instructor, and another goes to the company. 
Companies win because they get access to creative insights and solutions that they may have never come up with. If they like one of the submissions, they can implement it or reach out to work closer with the student(s).
If they don’t like the submissions, they do nothing.
Involvement comes at very little cost to the company: only the time spent reviewing the work from students. Teachers could make this process even smoother by screening the submissions first and only sending high quality entries to the companies.
Students win because they get to apply their time and efforts to solving real problems. They’ll have a better idea of what areas they want to work in after graduation, and the motivation to do good work would increase by an order of magnitude since a company might use their project submission or offer them a job.
The best part is that this new kind of project-based learning can be used for any real world skill. Companies in need of design inspiration can partner with top design schools, computer science students could help tackle technical problems, photography, music, and art students could collaborate with creative departments, and so on.
There are details that need to be ironed out for this to work. One could argue that introductory level classes should stick to fictional prompts and real projects should only be assigned in higher-level classes. And schools would need to ensure that companies don’t get too much influence over the education process.
In 2015, there were 20.2 million students enrolled in some form of college or university education in the United States.  If we can get even 1% of them to work on solving real problems instead of fake ones, that would be over 200,000 additional minds doing meaningful work.
Update 08/2017: The most common response I heard to this piece is that companies already squeeze creatives/freelancers/young folks for free work (“It’ll make a great addition to your portfolio!”). I agree this is a big problem. I do not believe it disqualifies the idea that students should contribute work to real projects while in school.
One potential solution:
- The company agrees to pay a certain amount of money for a certain number of project submissions they receive from the class.
- Students work on project and submit to their instructor.
- Instructors screen student submissions and pick the best ones.
- Those students are given a choice to accept payment in exchange for their work or to keep their work private.
- If they accept, they get paid and their project is shared with the company.
This is just the first workaround I thought of—I’m sure there are other, better ones as well.
 This proposal is different from long-term capstone projects where students partner with companies. These are quick, maybe lasting between 1 week to a few weeks, and require little involvement from the company. (Sort of like 99designs, but better.)
Thanks to Nathaniel Eliason, Jacob Frackson, Daniel Kao, Zach Lipp, Angela Liu, and Neha Srivastava for reading drafts of this piece.