Integrating Academia & Industry with University of West Florida’s Sea3D Lab

Higher education keeps searching for ways to bridge the gap between academia and industry. One institution may have found the key. 

Dr. Martha Saunders, President at University of West Florida, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk university-industry partnerships and their Sea3D lab’s missional pivot during COVID.

A high-level overview of UWF’s Sea3D lab

The Sea3D lab at West Florida serves as a hub for multidisciplinary research, innovation, and discovery in the high-demand field of additive manufacturing. It contains the coolest, hippest, smartest stuff that the school is doing.

The lab sits in a historic district, nestled into the Museum of Commerce. Visitors can see the museum exhibits that illustrate the industrial changes that took place over hundreds of years. And then…there’s the Sea3D lab.

What are the lab’s goals?

“We’re looking for true collaboration,” Dr. Saunders said. “It’s interesting to note that as some of the early lab directors, we had an engineering student and an art student.” 

The lab merges science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Students can collaborate in wonderful ways, not only with each other but also with the community. Faculty members, too, can use the lab to test some of their ideas, build prototypes, and work with others. 

Lab staffers do everything from helping users develop prototypes for new ideas and instruments to replicating parts of machines that they can’t find anymore. 

“It’s sort of a full service Sea3D lab,” Dr. Saunders said.

What value the Sea3D lab adds to local industry

UWF hopes the community will see the lab as a resource. The university wants to convert what it learns in the lab into benefits for the community. Already, a number of local businesses test fascinating new ideas in the lab. 

“But also, the local industries come in and our students get hands-on experience,” Dr. Saunders told us. 

Something magical happens once people get inside West Florida’s lab and start messing about with the equipment and generating new ideas.

“That’s essential education,” Dr. Saunders said.

When everyone went home and everything changed at the beginning of the COVID pandemic last March, the team at the Sea3D lab started manufacturing full face shields for healthcare workers. 

People worked seven days a week producing these masks free of charge for the recipients. Funding came from several grants, including one from Gulf Power, and local businesses gave the money for the materials.

What lessons does this lab success lead UWF to next?

Over time, UWF has discovered that it’s important to leverage regional strengths and resources with lab activities. 

The lab’s faculty members and students can do certain things. Then, industry comes in with a practical sense of what’s needed in the field. Finally, everyone puts their heads together to see how to provide real, on-the-ground products that serve an industry. 

As a result, students receive a great experience, and then the local industries often invite students to work with them. 

Everybody’s well served.

Next steps to establishing relationships with local industry

Listen to your advisory groups. Sometimes universities don’t move fast, and sometimes, knowledge is more evolutionary than revolutionary. 

“I think we’re very lucky that we have industrial partners and advisors that come in and say, ‘Hey, your graduates need to know how to do more of this. And maybe not so much of that,” Dr. Saunders told us. “And if we tune in and listen and respond in an agile way, then I think that’s key.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Martha Saunders of the University of West Florida. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.