Company Looks to UMass Lowell for Its Critical Business Needs
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Constant and dynamic.
That is how Bradley Mingels describes the special collaboration between UMass Lowell and BAE Systems, a global leader in developing cutting-edge electronics for commercial, defense, aerospace and security applications, and one of the largest manufacturing employers in New Hampshire.
“The constant part is an unwavering pursuit of preparing the company’s current and future workforce to be capable, technology-current and challenge-ready,” says Mingels, technical program manager and director of workforce development for professional and undergraduate education at the Francis College of Engineering.
“The dynamic part is that education and training are always evolving with advances in technology. Skills can become obsolete, and the workforce needs to be nimble and adaptable to stay current and forward-looking,” he says.
Mingels says the strength of this mutually beneficial collaboration is built on a shared objective: Build a better workforce, and you build a better economy.
“We’ve been doing this together for more than two decades,” he says.
The collaboration’s real value for the university is having such a strong affiliation with one of the world’s premier aerospace and defense technology companies.
“This opens a lot of doors for us in terms of research opportunities,” says Mingels.
As for BAE Systems, the company benefits from having access to world-class faculty for developing and delivering training on current and emerging technologies and skills, as well as providing employees with opportunities for professional and personal growth.
Over the last decade, UMass Lowell has offered two graduate certificate programs — in Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) and RF (radio frequency)/Microwave and Wireless Engineering — to BAE Systems employees with a bachelor’s degree who wish to continue their studies without committing to a master’s program.
The classes and hands-on lab courses are taught by UML faculty from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the company’s campuses in New Hampshire. Spearheading the programs are Department Chair and Prof. Martin Margala, Prof. Yan Luo and Prof. Hualiang Zhang.
The two-year programs allow students to take advanced courses specifically related to their work at BAE Systems, especially if they want to master the theoretical and practical skills and knowledge needed to design and develop reliable, mission-critical systems. Employees can earn up to 16 credits from each certificate program, which can be applied toward an engineering degree at UMass Lowell. To date, approximately 75 employees report having graduated from one of the certificate programs or an engineering master’s program.
“BAE Systems and UMass Lowell share a truly special relationship. The university’s robust graduate programs are instrumental in equipping our employees with the tools they need to solve our customers’ toughest problems,” says Ray Brousseau ’86, vice president and deputy general manager of BAE Systems’ Electronic Systems (ES) sector in Nashua.
“Whether it means access to a professor, a class or an academic program, UMass Lowell is there for us. I could not be prouder of the fruitful relationship we’ve built and the impact it has made for both organizations,” he says.
“Over time, UMass Lowell has adapted its engineering curriculum to meet our immediate professional development requirements and provide academic programs that align with the changing and complex needs of our business,” says Lisa Aucoin, vice president of Engineering for BAE Systems. “We have been able to use those programs to prepare our employees to be work ready.”
The university has also trained and accredited BAE Systems personnel to be adjunct instructors so they can teach in collaboration with UML professors, using the company’s network, software and processes.
“This allows for greater flexibility and sustainability in delivering more focused content to students,” says Mingels.
“We’ve had engineers from New Jersey, Texas and Hawaii participating in the certificate programs,” says Margala. “After completing the certificates, a large percentage of them transition to the M.S. program.”
BAE Systems is able to offer these classes to sites outside New Hampshire, which provides students a consistent learning experience and an opportunity to network and support each other during and after the program.
“This worked out particularly well due to the internal labs required for the microwave certificate program, which UMass Lowell would not normally offer in its onsite programs,” says Cheryl Chaput, Engineering development manager at BAE Systems in charge of ES Engineering-UML relationships.
“The university appended the one-credit labs to the program, and then worked to override any credit ceiling issues that came up. The staff in UMass Lowell’s Division of Graduate, Online and Professional Studies have been very supportive, ensuring everything runs smoothly for the students each semester through to graduation,” she says.
Last year, all classes and labs transitioned seamlessly to a virtual format in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our plan is to resume in-person instruction this fall,” says Mingels.
“The UML-BAE Systems partnership is evolving beyond the two certificate programs, with discussions about joint projects and joint research collaborations, similar to RURI,” notes Margala, referring to the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute.
A Pipeline for High-Caliber Graduates
Over the years, BAE Systems has recruited UMass Lowell students for internships and sought out graduates for new hires.
“UMass Lowell produces great engineers,” says Brousseau.
The company currently has more than 6,000 employees across its locations in Nashua, Merrimack, Hudson and Manchester, New Hampshire. About 250 UMass Lowell alumni currently work at BAE Systems.
“The high-caliber graduates who come to us are invaluable to our workforce,” says Brousseau.
BAE Systems is also a longtime collaborator with UML students in their senior-year capstone design projects, often to the benefit of both parties.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have a problem we need help solving,” says Brousseau. “A student will come in with a fresh perspective and really add something to the discussion. We’re talking about well-prepared, high-caliber people — the sort who go on to be outstanding engineers.”
Career Game Changers
Kendra Bogren-Brock, a BAE Systems hardware engineer in the FPGA certificate program, is able to apply her credits toward a master’s degree in computer engineering from UMass Lowell. She expects to graduate in December.
“I work with FPGAs every day, so I was able to brush up on the subject, but I’m also learning a lot in our verification labs about how our firmware is verified,” says Bogren-Brock. “Many people in the class are not FPGA designers, so they are learning a lot more about our design processes. This will give them a better understanding when working with the firmware team on their programs.”
Eric Gouveia, an RF engineer at BAE Systems who completed the microwave certificate program, says he was able to instantly apply what he learned to his day-to-day engineering work. It also motivated him to finish his master’s degree in electrical engineering at UML this summer.
“It really helped me understand what RF engineering is about and how it all ties into what BAE Systems does. I was able to make better design decisions and communicate better with our system architects. It was almost like I became fluent in a special engineering language,” Gouveia says.
“If you’re serious about RF and the kind of mission-critical work BAE Systems does, then the UML certificate program will really help you become successful,” he adds. “Regardless of your engineering background, the knowledge and skills you gain from this program can have an impact in every engineering discipline at BAE Systems.”
BAE Systems engineer Bill Griffin agrees. He completed the microwave certificate program and his master’s degree in electrical engineering, and is on track to complete the FPGA certificate this fall.
“The RF and FPGA programs are relevant to a variety of engineering assignments across design, development and operations. The succession of classes and labs solidifies your understanding of advanced concepts and hones the skills necessary to employ them,” says Griffin.
“Engaging in the certificate programs demonstrates your commitment to acquiring skills that can be applied to make the company stronger at its core. It helps to position you for opportunities in either technical or management career tracks. It also creates working relationships with your fellow students that will extend beyond the programs’ duration, possibly into future work assignments.”