From Co-ops to Capstones, Engineering Undergrads Seize Their Opportunities
By Ed Brennen
At New Balance in Lawrence, Mass., a team of engineering students is developing a mechanical foot to help the shoe company test the wear on sneaker soles. Twenty miles away at Entegris in Billerica, another team is working with electrostatic chucks to manipulate microchip wafers. And in Lowell, students are partnering with Enel Green Power, the company that manages the city’s canals, to build a Roomba-like robot to clean the waterways.
These are among the 28 Industrial Senior Design projects that mechanical, electrical, computer and plastics engineering students are collaborating on this year – projects that fulfill their required senior capstone experience in the Francis College of Engineering.
“The knowledge that students learn in the classroom is often pieces of a puzzle, and the capstone fills in those final pieces to tie it all together,” says John Palma, an assistant teaching professor of electrical and computer engineering who has overseen the multidisciplinary, industry-sponsored capstones since they were introduced four years ago. In that time, the program has grown from six projects to this year’s 28, which are funded by 20 companies (including Raytheon, Analog Devices and BAE Systems).
Broadening the scope of senior capstones is just one step the college has taken in recent years to improve the students’ undergraduate experience. By introducing new opportunities for experiential learning, innovation, entrepreneurship and service learning, as well as bolstering professional advising and creating new spaces on campus where students can bring their ideas to life, the college is achieving one of its key strategic goals: to have more students finish what they started. The retention rate for first-year engineering students has climbed from 79 percent in 2013 to 86 percent in 2018, while the six-year graduation rate has improved from 38 percent to 63 percent in the same period.
“We pride ourselves in providing a hands-on education,” says Dean Joseph Hartman, who points to the college’s many laboratory course offerings as evidence. “But the opportunities to learn outside of the classroom are vast. These activities deepen the college experience, build valuable skills and lead to lifelong friendships.”
Companies are eager to hire UMass Lowell’s engineering graduates. For the 535 members of the Class of 2018, 99 percent were either gainfully employed or pursuing graduate studies within six months of receiving their degrees. Of those with jobs, 91 percent were working in industry.
For graduates, that translates into an impressive return on investment (ROI) on their engineering degrees. According to Payscale.com, UML ranks second among all colleges and universities in Massachusetts for annual ROI. Engineering grads, who consistently enjoy some of the highest average salaries among alumni, are a big driver of those numbers.
A Foot in the Door
“It’s a good time to be an engineer,” says Director of Cooperative EducationRae Perry, who notes that companies like to hire co-ops from UML because close to 85 percent of its graduates stay in the area and join the state’s workforce. “We are in an area that’s rich in terms of companies employing our students.”
That’s certainly the case at Vicor, an Andover-based company that makes modular power converters. The company has hired 66 UML students for co-op positions since 2013, with many offered full-time jobs after graduating.
“All of the associate engineers that we’ve hired in the last five years have either been directly in our co-op program or gained experience in another manufacturing or design co-op program,” says Director of Operations Engineering Steve Sadler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from UML in 1987 and has worked at Vicor for 28 years.
A decade ago, UML’s Professional Cooperative Education program consisted of just 29 plastics engineering students on three-month co-ops with 18 companies. The program has since expanded to include all engineering majors. Last year, there were a record 312 engineering students on co-ops (mostly six-month stints) with more than 100 companies across the country.
“Our most successful co-ops are from UMass Lowell,” says Kelsey Martin, an associate product development engineer at Getinge Group in Merrimack, N.H., where she also coordinates the onboarding program for the dozen or so new co-ops each semester at the medical technology company.
Martin is a bit biased, of course. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UML in 2018 and worked as a six-month co-op at Getinge her junior year (staying on as a temporary worker through her senior year).
“Having that work experience changed my life,” says Martin, who originally envisioned a career in pharmaceuticals. “I got the opportunity to develop technical skills that I can now apply at any medical device company – and be exceedingly qualified.”
A Supportive Path
Knowing there are many students like Martin who alter their career paths in college (about 70 percent of students change their majors at least once), the university in 2017 introduced a new hybrid advising system for first-year and transfer students. Now, every first-year student in the College of Engineering is assigned two advisors: a full-time, professional advisor and a faculty advisor in their major. The professional advisors focus on the students’ first-year success and retention, helping them map out their degree paths and define career goals.
First-year students are also supported through Living-Learning Communities (LLCs), which give students the chance to live on the same floor in a residence hall with peers who share the same interests. The College of Engineering sponsors two LLCs: Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) and the recently created Developing Leaders in Engineering.
One of the most visible ways the college has improved the undergraduate experience is through upgrades to learning spaces. Last fall, the Mechanical Engineering Department moved into the renovated Dandeneau Hall. (The former Pasteur Hall was renamed last May in honor of plastics engineering alum James Dandeneau ’80.) This past winter, the college’s two newest undergraduate degrees – biomedical and environmental – moved into brand-new teaching labs in Perry Hall following its $50 million renovation. Since 2014, the college’s “teaching footprint” has gone from 45,000 square feet to 70,000 square feet.
Software company Dassault Systèmes, which supports senior capstone projects and is a member of UML’s Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC), is building on its partnership with the university. The Dassault Systèmes 3D Experience Center, slated to open later this year in Kitson Hall, will give engineering students hands-on experience in designing and creating products with the company’s 3DEXPERIENCE platform.
Students are already doing hands-on work at the Lawrence Lin MakerSpace, an 8,500-square-foot open-concept work area in Falmouth Hall. Dedicated two years ago in honor of engineering alum Lawrence Lin ’90, the space provides students with 24/7 access to 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines and electronics workstations to guide projects from concept to reality.
It’s where you might find students working on projects for the Engineering Prototype Competition, which the College of Engineering launched in 2014 to prepare students for the DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge held each spring.
This year, sophomore plastics engineering major Gavin Donohue teamed up with students from the Manning School of Business and the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS) on a project called Benji Ball, an inclusive variation on baseball that can be used for children with special needs. One night after winning $5,000 in the FAHSS Creative Venture Competition, the team took home the $2,500 top prize in the Prototyping Competition. This spring, they’ll pitch Benji Ball at the Idea Challenge.
“The students are not competing because it involves a grade or is required,” Hartman says of the Prototyping Competitions. “They are participating because they have an idea that they want to pursue and share.”
Capping the Experience
Some of the DifferenceMaker projects spring from Entrepreneurial Senior Design projects, another senior capstone option recently introduced to engineering students. Interdisciplinary teams of engineering and business students come up with an entrepreneurial idea that they not only design and prototype, but also advance with a business and marketing plan.
One of the most successful projects to come through the Entrepreneurial Senior Design pipeline is “invisaWear,” a line of smart necklaces, bracelets and keychains designed to keep women safe by sending alerts via text to loved ones and even police when activated. Its eponymously named company was launched by 2016 electrical engineering/computer science alum Rajia Abdelaziz and her co-founder, Raymond Hamilton ’17 (electrical engineering).
A third prong of senior capstones is service learning projects, which match teams of engineering students with nonprofit organizations both in the community and around the world. Last year, for example, a dozen civil and environmental engineering students traveled to Haiti to work on a model waste disposal system for a single-family home that can be easily adapted and replicated, using basic tools and local materials.
The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department’s Assistive Technology Program (ATP), which has been providing support to the disabled in the community since 1991, also now falls under the umbrella of service learning capstone projects.
“Twenty-five years ago, the idea of having students do senior projects with people outside of the university was pretty innovative,” says Palma, who has been running ATP since joining the university in 2012. His own experience as a senior at the University of Rochester in 1996 was quite different, Palma says. “We just picked a senior project off a list, did it, got our grade and threw the project in the trash can. It was just an academic exercise.”
Now, senior capstones are giving students industry experience, teaching them how to build teams and think like an entrepreneur, and allowing them to help those in need. Along the way, the projects tie together everything they’ve learned in the Francis College of Engineering.
“The senior capstone course straddles the two worlds of academics and real life,” Palma says. “It’s getting them to transition from thinking like a college student to thinking like an engineer.”