With convocation being held this week, campus is bustling with the activity of thousands of new students. This includes about 850 new Engineering students at UMass Lowell, including freshmen and transfers. A recent post by Valerie Strauss, “Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is becoming harder than ever, experts say,” in The Washington Post (August 14, 2017), which draws on a blog from Brennan Barnard, reminded me that the transition to college is not always easy for students. In fact, the article claimed that it is easier to get into college than to stay in college. I would disagree that it is easy to get into Engineering, but there is no doubt that one must be diligent to stay on track towards graduation. Continue reading
It is hard to believe that the smartphone revolution started just 10 years ago this year, with Apple having delivered its first iconic iPhone in 2007. I often have trouble remembering my life before my first smartphone. I vaguely remember my Nokia 3210 and Motorola Razor, while also owning a digital camera and a digital calendar (PDA). I also vaguely remember a time when I could not access my email 24/7. (I’m not here to debate whether that is progress!) Continue reading
ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, requires an integrative experience for all accredited programs. Specifically, according to abet.org:
Baccalaureate degree programs must provide a capstone or integrating experience that develops student competencies in applying both technical and non-technical skills in solving problems.
To me, the key to this experience is the application of both technical and non-technical skills. Interestingly, when employers are asked to rank the importance of different skills for new workers, they generally focus on non-technical skills. In a recent survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) ranked leadership; ability to work in a team; communication skills (written); problem-solving skills; communication skills (verbal); strong work ethic; and initiative, ahead of quantitative and technical skills in terms of importance.
This is why it is critical that students gain experience during their schooling, and why I champion co-ops and internships. However, if designed properly, the capstone experience that is required by ABET provides another opportunity to develop integrated technical and non-technical skills. The key ingredients to these capstone projects are:
- Complex design problem defined by external stakeholder and faculty mentor.
- Teams of interdisciplinary teams working towards a solution.
- Significant and ongoing opportunities for written and oral communication between the student teams, mentor and stakeholder.
I truly believe that the best projects come from outside the ivory tower. This is not to say that a Professor cannot define a great project for a student team to tackle – surely they can. However, they cannot provide an “outsider’s perspective” on the provided solution. That is, if a problem is defined by an external stakeholder (i.e., company, government entity, non-profit agency, etc.) that has a vested interest in the solution, then the students will be required to communicate the development of the solution over time with that entity. This is an important skill for students to develop – even engineers have to learn to “sell” their solutions, to co-workers, administrators, and clients. Furthermore, this generally requires both written and oral communication. (Note: it is assumed that the design problem posed by an external stakeholder is properly vetted and scoped, and that a faculty mentor will also work with the team.)
Our Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program has been working with non-profit agencies for years through its Assistive Technology Program. Through these projects, students develop technological solutions for people in need (i.e., physical or learning disabilities, etc.). The program continues to grow in scope, with projects starting to reach beyond just ECE capabilities.
Other Departments work with external partners too. Our Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has completed projects with the Massachusetts State Police while our Mechanical Engineering Department has completed projects with the National Parks Association. ME has also partnered with Physics to work on satellite design projects for NASA.
Turning to industry for that “outsider’s viewpoint”, we launched a new Interdisciplinary Senior Design program two years ago with great success. This year, we ran 16, year-long projects for Computer, Electrical, Mechanical and Plastics Engineering majors with sponsors that included Analog Devices, BAE Systems, Brooks Automation, Dell EMC, MACOM, MKS Instruments, Nypro (A Jabil Company), Raytheon, Skyworks, Symbotic and UTC Aerospace Systems. In general, the students proposed a solution in the first semester (after significant research) and built a prototype in the second semester.
While the solutions were great, I was more excited about the ongoing communications during the semester. The student teams were required to write a memo each week, detailing the advances for the week, next steps, and current (or potential future) concerns. This provided a running development log (augmenting project management plans as well as student engineering notebooks) and introduced the concept of risk analysis to students (by forcing them to identify current or potential concerns). It also served as a basis for weekly discussions between the students, the stakeholder, and the faculty mentor.
In addition to the memos and engineering notebook logs, the students were required to write multiple reports, develop a summary poster, and deliver numerous presentations. The final presentations were delivered in front of all teammates, classmates, faculty advisors, and stakeholder liaison engineers. It was the perfect culminating experience to the capstone program for this year. And it illustrated that a properly defined and executed capstone design project can advance those skills identified by NACE to be highly desirable by industry.
We recently hosted our Spring Career Fair, with over 200 companies descending on the Tsongas Center looking for talent. While surely a number of graduating students were looking to lock in their first job upon graduation, I always encourage sophomores, juniors, and even freshmen to take advantage of the opportunity to look at the job market and perhaps land a summer internship or co-op position. One can never start looking, or preparing, too early for landing that first job.
I have always advised my students that potential employers are looking for three attributes in future hires: (1) good scholarship; (2) demonstrated leadership; and (3) practical experience. Note that a Career Fair is a unique opportunity – an applicant has the chance to “explain” their resume to a company representative. In this day and age, many more job opportunities are presented online and the applicant merely presents a resume and cover letter. For this situation, it is critical that the applicant highlight (1), (2) and (3) clearly, as there may never be an opportunity to “explain” an item on the resume.
Item (1) is straightforward: getting into UMass Lowell is the first hurdle, as our Engineering program is highly respected by companies throughout the world. The next hurdle is succeeding academically, generally measured by grade point average (GPA). This is not easy, so one has to work hard – if it was easy, more students would pursue engineering degrees. (According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, only 5.2% of B.S. degrees conferred in the United States in 2014-15 were in Engineering!) Do note, that if the GPA is subpar, the applicant must be ready to illustrate why, presumably through extensive off-campus commitments, such as work.
Item (2) requires that students take advantage of the University’s offerings in experiential learning. At Lowell, we have a number of opportunities for students to get involved, and lead. There are student clubs, teams and societies, each with a different mission and purpose, but all having the need for leadership. For example, engineering teams such as Design-Build-Fly, Collegiate Wind, Concrete Canoe, and Steel Bridge, to name a few, have deadlines throughout the year leading to the competitions. These require extensive planning and students must step forward and to keep the projects on schedule. Student clubs, such as those affiliated with a major (i.e., American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE), or an affinity group (i.e., Society of Women Engineers, or SWE), have an obligation to their membership to provide professional development opportunities, as well as some fun, through tours, speakers, travel, outreach and other events. Again, these activities take planning and execution such that many clubs and societies have extensive rosters of vice presidents to help spread the workload. This is what a company wants to see – leadership, not merely participation.
Item (3) is a bit of a double-edged sword. Companies want students with experience but students need experience to get a job. This is why it is so critical for students to look for opportunities early in their academic career – companies may require experience for a full-time position, but they are less stringent for summer intern or co-op options because they know that this is the entry point for most students.
So students, start early and remember, a three-pronged strategy is needed to land that dream job: scholarship, leadership, and work experience.
On Saturday, April 8, we will welcome hundreds of accepted students onto campus with family and friends to look at our College and University. It is an exciting time of year, although I know the decision of choosing a University can be daunting for a student and family.
I know I am biased, but it is hard for me to believe that there is a better value than UMass Lowell for any student interested in Engineering – especially for those from Massachusetts. Our programs are nationally ranked and ABET accredited, with companies all over the globe coveting our graduates (our placement rate was 96% in the College last year). But I believe it is the experiential learning opportunities that truly define a UMass Lowell education. At Lowell, students can be:
- Competitors: Join a team and compete in concrete canoe, steel bridge, chemical car, SAE car, embedded systems, digital design, design-build-fly, solar house, wind energy and more!
- Designers: Hang out in our 8500 ft.2 Makerspace and take napkin sketches to computer-aided-designs to prototypes to final products using the latest equipment, including 3D-Printers, Laser Cutters, CNC Lathes and Milling Machines.
- Educators: The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Our service-learning courses allow students to go into the community and teach STEM subject matter to middle and high school students. This can be formalized into a teaching certificate through our UTeach program.
- Innovators: Our DifferenceMaker curriculum cover the process of defining a problem, developing a solution, identifying a market, working in a team, and pitching a solution. Compete for real prize money to develop your product or service in our Prototyping Competition each fall and the Idea Challenge each spring.
- Professionals: Take the necessary steps to becoming a practicing engineer by participating in our professional co-op program, internships, or industrial experiences. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary senior design option will allow you to solve a problem posed by an industrial sponsor.
- Researchers: Explore cutting edge technologies in a variety of fields, including clean energy, nanomanufacturing, flexible electronics, composites, structural health monitoring, biomanufacturing, sensors, and smart transportation.
And this is really just a taste of being a RiverHawk. There is always something happening on campus to motivate further learning. It really is no surprise that publications such as Payscale.com, BestColleges.com and Forbes define us as a great value.
Alumnus Mike Johnston is at the culmination of an incredible rookie year with Merrimack Valley Robotics and the FRC 5962 team. At the start of this school year his team was just a small group of local kids hoping to add FIRST into their robotics club project. With 25 days before registration was due for the 2016 season, they were informed that the team could not be supported by the school. They were homeless, but, they were determined.
The students shifted their focus, and aimed to create a team that was a collaboration of numerous local communities – rather than one town. Full of passion, they came to UMass Lowell, and asked for help. We were happy to offer our new Makerspace, which included many of the tools that would be needed to construct the robot. FRC 5962 then partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell, and reached out to local schools to seek team members and additional mentors. Their recruiting efforts paid off, and the team grew to include students from Lowell, Dracut, Haverhill, Methuen, North Reading, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, and Tyngsboro MA and Salem NH.
By December 1, more than 30 middle-school and high-school students had “moved in” to the Makerspace, prepared to spend the next six weeks (at times I’m sure it seemed 24-7!) designing and building a robot for the international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.
The students put their technical skills to the test by constructing a robot that can complete a variety of tasks and games. Their creation, named “Scorpio,” is built with materials — and limited instructions — provided by the contest’s organizers. During the six-week period, team members learned to use power tools and run sophisticated computer programs under the guidance of engineers from companies such as Analog Devices, Kronos Inc. and IBM. Many of these mentors are UMass Lowell alumni.
Scorpio measures approximately 2½ by 2½ feet and stands 18 inches high. The unit weighs about 120 pounds and is powered by a 12-volt rechargeable battery.
Though the season has come to an end, FRC 5962 has made a significant contribution to the FIRST competition, and garnered an impressive number of awards. Their final ranking for the robotics season includes:
Rookie All-Star Award – North Shore District Event: Celebrates the rookie team exemplifying a young but strong partnership effort, as well as implementing the mission of FIRST to inspire students to learn more about science and technology.
Gracious Professionalism Award – UNH District Event: Celebrates outstanding demonstration of FIRST Core Values such as continuous Gracious Professionalism® working together both on and off the playing field.
Highest Rookie Seed Award – UNH District Event: Celebrates the highest-seeded rookie team at the conclusion of the qualifying rounds.
Rookie Inspiration Award – New England District Championship: Celebrates a rookie team’s outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering and engineers, both within their school, as well as in their community.
Ranked 48 of 181 teams – FIRST Robotics Competition 2016, New England District
We are extremely proud of the dedication of PerSEVERE’s students and mentors and their AMAZING finish in their very first contest. It has been fun to witness the students’ energy and excitement for engineering while working away in our campus lab over the past several weeks. We look forward to more building in the future!
Samariah (Sammy) Jacobs, a UMass Lowell Mechanical Engineering junior, is doing amazing work getting inner city Boston youth creatively engaged in technology and engineering, as a mentor in the 14 year old Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program at the South End Technology Center @ Tent City.
Sammy, fellow L2T/T2L college mentors and youth teachers just won an international Google RISE award for their work and the National Science Foundation is studying their work as national best practices in a Digital Literacies research project.
Each year, 36 teenage youth teachers, who are selected to represent Boston, learn 6 different technology and engineering modules, build projects that solve community issues, then offer free 3-4 week STEAM camps for 700+ Boston elementary and middle school youth at 25 community organizations who would not otherwise offer STEM enrichment.
Sammy was a youth teacher when she was in high school and now is in her second year of working as a college mentor in the program. Last year, Sammy developed a solar energy activity where youth soldered up solar circuits to power the propeller on their own lasercut wood airplane. She just developed two activities and began teaching them to new youth teachers: Teh Squish-ay (using conductive dough to teach electricity and circuits with LEDs, motors, tilt switches, photocells) and Blinkie Paper (uses linkages with circuit stickers to create light up cards).
My sincere appreciation to Dr. Susan Klimczak, L2T Director of Special Programs, for calling attention to Sammy’s inspiring community contributions. She is a shining example of just one of the many reasons why I am so proud to be Dean of the College of Engineering. Look for more information on Sammy and her work at Tent City in future posts.