In the Spring Semester of 2011, Univ. of Central Florida's CREOL introduced an elective course in Optomechanical Design. In addition to homework assignments and exams, one component of the course grade was a design project. Rather than the traditional "assigned" project, the instructor experimented with a novel research-centric approach. Specifically,
students were asked to select a project directly applicable to their graduate research. While challenging for the instructor to grade, student motivation and performance remained exceptionally high throughout the semester. This paper summarizes the background, projects, and pedagogical benefits of such a research-centric approach to project-based learning.