“What the program does is help students get the practical experience to put in a resume, which helps them get in the door”
The Capstone Engineering Design Program, UTC member National Grid, and the University of Rhode Island (URI) formed an alliance to create a program geared toward fostering the next great generation of engineers. Since 2006, when Harish Sunak, Ph.D., assumed the role of Program Director, 336 engineering students have passed through the program into the workforce. When Kevin Malloy, Manager Telecom Ops for National Grid, took on the role of Technical Director in 2012, he brought a real-world element to the program that provided the essential ingredient in promoting future generations of engineers equipped to tackle the issues utilities are sure to face. Programs like Rhode Island’s Capstone Engineering Design are integral if utilities are to nurture and fill vital skilled positions. Without this bridge between academia and real-world application, the new segment of professionals entering the workforce lack the experience that connects what they have learned in school with its application in everyday practice. This is just one reason why Malloy sees a huge benefit from being involved with the program. It can also be a wellspring of future talent and a vehicle through which that talent can get the competitive edge when entering the workforce.
“Many students that I’ve had have actually gone on to get jobs in the industry. The program is geared toward Electrical and Computer Engineering with the main purpose of creating an opportunity for students to step into real-world situations while still in their senior year of studies. The pairing of student and project is a delicate task requiring many phases. First, Professor Sunak solicits suitable projects from industrial contacts as well as URI’s College of Engineering faculty. The seniors involved then study these projects and create a list of five they are interested in working on. The Technical, Directors of those five projects present a ten-minute overview communicating in depth the details, insight, and skill set they are seeking in conceptualizing the project and seeing it to fruition. The students then create an even shorter list of the projects they want to work on, along with a full justification for their decisions. Taking all this information into consideration, Sunak creates multidisciplinary groups of two to four students per project to work under the guidance of their Technical Director, and the program gets underway.”
The role of the Technical Director (TD), according to Malloy, is twofold. Most importantly, the TD serves as a conduit between the students and a real-life experience complementing their career objectives and fulfilling the four-credit requirement for the course. But the TD’s job is also to make the experience as fun as possible, considering this is the last time the students can work as engineers while still performing as students. During the course of the program, teams will learn important aspects of real-world implementation. A successful project requires interaction with vendors, internal and external engineers,and a final presentation to the other Capstone teams. An oral presentation and suitable practice sessions are conducted each semester. Technical Directors and College of Engineering faculty attend these sessions, and the Program Director uses them to guide the projects in the right direction. The process of preparing for these sessions along with Gantt Charts, project management, the development of a technical product, specifications, writing technical reports (two per semester are required), and writing weekly progress reports are just a few illustrations of the skill sets students acquire when successfully navigating the program. “The Capstone Design Program challenges me to think outside of the box, apply the knowledge I have gained the past four years … and work with other engineers to create something special;’ said Luis Rodriguez, a URI class of 2015 graduate. “This gives me the hands-on real-world experience that I simply cannot get by just taking engineering courses alone:’ Rodriguez is currently an associate engineer specializing in telecom and network strategy for National Grid, just one example of how this program creates opportunities.
The Capstone Program goes further, however, not only shaping the up-and-coming talent entering the workforce, but the actual landscape of the utilities market as well. Going to industry as a source for project ideas and mentorship keeps the projects aligned with issues facing the marketplace. This creates an exciting opportunity for students to be involved in the solutions. Consider that the current state of most utilities is less than automated, and the industry seems to be at a crossroads, needing to transition from manually controlled to fully automated systems. It is not, therefore, surprising that Malloy is finding many Capstone projects focused around smart grid, utility automation, communications to field devices, and the evaluation of public and private infrastructure. The 2015/ 16 class, for example, is working on a micro grid for industrial and community application. Collaborations like the one with the Capstone Project, URI, and National Grid are imperative in providing the high-caliber group of up-and-coming engineers necessary to not only understand and maintain the utility industry’s current needs, but also to promote and inspire solutions for the issues ahead. At a time when many utilities are automating their distribution systems, the need for experienced and technically savvy engineers is growing. The Capstone Design students are getting first-hand experience, college credit, and a leg up on the competition when interviewing for their first career step after college. Thus, providing real-world training with an academic backdrop creates a stronger candidate from which companies can choose and a confidence in students soon to enter the workforce. In spaces like this, innovation tends to thrive and the architecture of tomorrow’s industry can begin to form.