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Drop the “L” from Cal Poly’s “Learn By Doing” mantra, and you get the phrase “Earn By Doing” — a new favorite motto of administrators at the university.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has called for increased public-private partnerships, which would lead to student earning possibilities and the potential for students to intern on campus with private companies. The mechanical engineering department is currently partnering with businesses to pay the salary of students working in its machine shops.
And with Jamba Juice and Punchd under Cal Poly students’ belts, it’s not unprecedented for student projects to become successful businesses.
But this focus on earning while at Cal Poly is hardly a new idea. A look through Cal Poly’s history shows “Earn By Doing” has been around for a while.
Cal Poly was established as a vocational school, providing “to young people of both sexes mental and manual training in the arts and sciences, including agriculture, mechanics, engineering, business methods, domestic economy and other branches as will fit the students for non-professional walks of life,” the founding bill said.
In the 1920s, projects became an important part of Cal Poly students’ education. The combination of “earning” and “learning” first appeared around that time, as well.
Many young men who attended Cal Poly in the 1920s (when the school only admitted men) had trouble paying the approximately $25 a month that made up a student’s total expenses.
Morris Eugene Smith’s book “History of California State Polytechnic: The First Fifty Years“ details the genesis of the project program at Cal Poly.
Benjamin Ray Crandall became president of Cal Poly in 1924. Under his leadership, Cal Poly implemented projects in the school’s agriculture program.
Projects were to be practical, guided by faculty and last between 60 days and a year. This program, which allowed students to keep profits from their projects, was implemented under the motto “earn while you learn.”
Many young men who attended Cal Poly in the 1920s (when the school only admitted men) had trouble paying the approximately $25 a month that made up a student’s total expenses. Therefore, the ability to earn money while advancing their education was a major benefit to students of the time, emeritus history professor Daniel Krieger said.
Julian A. McPhee, who succeeded Crandall as president of the university, carried on the project legacy and the earning potential that came with it. McPhee’s experience, having started the first Future Farmers of America chapter in California, gave him a background in agriculture education.
Krieger said McPhee would often personally intervene to help students find a way to pay their bills by their sophomore year. Enterprise projects were one way to achieve this.
Raising cattle, chickens and planting crops were common projects.
A 1926 edition of Polygram, the student newspaper at the time, details one venture in the headline: “Beef and Pig Projects.”
“During the Fair, Kenneth Sheley and Gerald Rickecker are buying 20 head of Aberdeen Angus calves from the Peabody ranch at Atascadero. These calves weigh about 500 pounds, and cost the boys $900,” the article read.
The Polygram also details the Shorthorn baby beefs the boys bought in Lompoc and the 250 pigs that were to be fattened for city markets.
This particular project was one of the more ambitious in Cal Poly’s early history.
“Twenty-three hundred dollars will be required to finance the lot of feeder hogs,” Polygram read. “This sum alone is more than the grand total allowed for projects the year that Dr. Crandall introduced the system at Poly. Although the sums involved are large, the boys, with Mr. McFarland behind them, expect to come out financially clear.”
Other early projects included a quarter horse herd, Krieger said.
Students were also involved in horse shows and judging. In those early days, if students wanted to attend a horse show in Chicago, they might have to take their own cars. Sometimes there was enough to pay for a train ticket, Krieger said.
As “Learn By Doing” and “Earn By Doing” began to take hold of the whole university, the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences continued to offer and promote enterprise projects. The system is still in place today.
“We’ve gone a long way from growing chickens and raising crops. We’re doing things that are experiential,” Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Mark Shelton said. “The key is it’s supposed to simulate a small business in agriculture.”
Shelton said there are approximately 45 enterprise projects on campus today with 400-500 students in them. Students receive academic credit for these projects, many of which have the potential to make money, Shelton said.
Students work closely with faculty, who often have recurring enterprise projects set up, Shelton said.
The enterprise handbook lists the current enterprise projects, including egg production, equine breeding, Cal Poly Chocolates and more.
Shelton also taught a beekeeping class, with participation from students across the university’s colleges.
Students must find a buyer for their projects. Shelton remembered one student group whose buyer for their broccoli florets was from Japan.
Students borrow money to start their project from the Cal Poly Corporation. If the project ultimately loses money, the losses are absorbed by the department conducting the project. Students are not at financial risk, Shelton said.
“It’s all about entrepreneurial activity and student learning,” Shelton said.
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