Sandy beaches, sunshine and theme parks draw millions of people to visit or retire in Florida each year. But the tourism industry — along with the agriculture industry famous for its orange exports — tends to provide low-paying, low-skill jobs for state residents. 

From the governor down to the Legislature, Florida leaders are trying to attract more companies that focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) so its residents will have more options to make a good living. And part of that plan includes investing in the young Florida Polytechnic University to train students who can solve real problems for those companies.

"We want the students that graduate from here to be ready to contribute to a company from the first day they walk onto a company's grounds," said university President Randy K. Avent, who came on board in 2014. 

Led by former Sen. J. D. Alexander, the Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2012 to create Florida Polytechnic University — the state's 12th public university and first polytechnic institution. Its Central Florida campus lies in Lakeland between the beaches in Tampa and the theme parks in Orlando. Two years after the bill passed, the university opened for fall classes with more than 550 students and grew to more than 1,300 students by fall 2016.

On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the university graduated its first class of 18 students with degrees in innovation and technology, mechanical and industrial engineering, and electrical engineering. While the state's initial target goal for accreditation has passed, Florida Poly's graduation helped the university meet one of its accreditation requirements, and its accrediting body plans to visit the campus in February. 

In the meantime, Florida Poly's leaders have been taking advantage of the opportunity to build an efficient university that weaves problem-solving and industry collaboration into the STEM curriculum from the beginning. After all, it's not very often that a university president gets the chance to start fresh with a young institution and try different ways to bring the higher education business processes and teaching up to date, Avent said.

"As higher ed continues to come under more pressure to change and modernize and become more efficient, it's just difficult to do that in existing institutions," Avent said.

Florida Poly is already using Workday, a cloud-first approach to enterprise resource systems, while many of its older peers across the United States are still using older systems based on campus servers. Avent attributes this forward-thinking to Mark Mroczkowski, the university's vice president and chief financial officer who came from industry and diligently looks for ways to improve Florida Poly's operations. The University of Florida had been taking care of Florida Poly's enterprise data before the October Workforce migration.

Along with efficient operations, the university is rethinking how to teach students and borrowing from a popular learning model that spread from Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts: project-based learning that applies research to the real world and starts right away when students enroll. From the beginning, Florida Poly students work on real projects and solve problems in partnership with local industries.

This project and partnership approach is designed to give students experience in their field of study immediately and connect university research with industry technology development. Often, Avent said, a valley of dead data lies between university research and industry product development when research never makes it out of the lab.

And it will also allow students to show local companies what they know and can do before they graduate, which could translate to job offers once they complete their degrees. In fact, student graduation speaker Gabriela Martines earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at 20 years old — the first in her family to finish college — and will work on NASA contracts for Millennium Engineering and Integration Company on the Space Coast in Florida, said Crystal L. Lauderdale, Florida Poly's director of marketing and communications. A number of the other students already have jobs in IT and hydraulics; some are looking for jobs and some will be pursuing doctorate degrees.

Because of the university's small size, students receive more personal attention, and the university's new provost, Terry Parker, would like to see that translate into a strong peer network that can support them throughout their career. He also said he hopes to make progress on incorporating more technology platforms into the learning experience that will help instructors provide students with deeper learning opportunities tailored to them.

"I’m willing to make you a bet that in five years' time," Parker said, "we’ll be a significant force in Florida."