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Maximizing Opportunities

February 18, 2015

Mechanical Engineering Capstone group on presentation day – From left to right: Jonathan Leydon, Andrew Waite, Carly Gajewski, Daniel Walsh, and Jacob Cohen 

About Me 

Andrew Waite is a fifth year Mechanical Engineering student, finishing the BS/MS program this May. He has done two co-ops, traveled to Haiti on a couple medical mission trips, and led two engineering based student organizations. He shares his experiences at Northeastern and advice on maximizing opportunities while in college.

Maximizing Opportunities 

Here at Northeastern we are lucky to have real industry work integrated into our learning experience. This gives us three main areas of opportunity: classes, campus activities, and co-ops. Through these three areas of opportunity, I have learned to practice two main things: setting and achieving goals, and seeking a true learning mentality.

Classes

Northeastern has been climbing in ranks quicker than any college I know of. In the College of Engineering there have been many new professors hired who bring experience, knowledge, and cutting-edge research to our departments. 

It is especially important in classes to have a learning mentality. This means going to a professor’s office hours even if you understand all the concepts enough to pass the exams, just to pick the professor’s brain and go more in depth about a concept or two that was introduced in class. Reading textbooks even when reading is not officially assigned by the professor is another way to strive towards a learning mentality. 

To practice setting and achieving goals, take classes with projects built into the curriculum and get the most out of those projects. Use this as an opportunity to learn the concepts deeper, and when given a choice of topic, choose something that sparked your interest or are passionate about. 

For example, I took a course called Materials Processing and Process Selection taught by Dr. Bridget Smyser. Our term project was to pick a part of a product, explore its manufacturing process, and propose an improvement to that process. I have traveled to Haiti twice and have seen the importance of potable water. I decided to investigate water filters for my term project. By the end of the project, I knew all about ceramic water filters and their manufacturing processes. Choosing a topic you are passionate about not only encourages you to learn more about that topic, but makes working hard on project deliverables easier. 

Another important aspect about classes is the big picture. What program are you in? What is the value of the things you are learning? What is the value of the degree or degrees you are pursuing? Many different degree options are available, but commonly not sought after because they are somewhat intimidating. Many students don’t realize the curriculums are flexible, as long as requirements are being met. Here’s a list of different degree options in the college of engineering. If you don’t see an option you want, then meet with your academic advisor and figure out a way to make it happen. While an underclassman, assess how much credit you came into college with or if it is possible to get ahead by taking classes when your curriculum has a vacation semester scheduled. Then evaluate if you can take advantage of the variety of programs. This ranges from getting a minor, to getting a Master’s degree as well as a Bachelor’s degree. 

I am in a program that results in the latter, called the BS/MS program. It allows students the possibility of doing two co-ops instead of three, and taking enough courses to finish a graduate degree in the same five years. I was happy with my first two co-ops, so I decided to take graduate courses in lieu of a third co-op. Some students are actually able to do three full co-ops and the BS/MS program as well. 

Similar to class projects, many of COE’s departments have extensive Capstone projects. For my Mechanical Engineering Capstone, four other students and I proposed our own idea a few weeks before the course began. With support from the MIE department and access to necessary resources, we were able to bring our project from ideation to a functional prototype and see it successfully demonstrated by an actual end user. 

Furthermore, use your senior Capstone project to set and achieve personal goals. My team was able to do this by proposing our own project, researching every aspect of the field (prosthetics), designing a solution to a problem with a basic mechanical design, getting a provisional patent on that design, and getting quotes from foreign and domestic manufacturers on the solution’s parts. To read more about my group’s project check out our website at thefarmarm.org

At all points of the project, again, retain a learning mentality. Whether designing a part in CAD (computer aided design), analyzing it in FEA (finite element analysis), simulating a process in MATLAB, learning about intellectual property, sending out part files and drawings to be quoted, negotiating quotes, or full commercialization of a solution, approach each task with the intent of learning as much as you can from the task and the people you come in contact with.

Campus Activities

This area of opportunity is broad. Ranging from student organizations to professors’ research labs, college campuses are abundant with opportunities. There exists no passion unrepresented by a student group at Northeastern. It’s fantastic almost to the point of excessive. 

A good goal to set for participation or membership in an organization is to improve skills such as planning and executing events, communication and working in a team (sounds cliché, but is definitely undervalued), organization skills, and possibly most useful, leadership. My first semester of freshman year I joined Beta Gamma Epsilon (BGE), a computer science and engineering fraternity. By my middler year I was president of BGE and learning more about leadership than I had anticipated. 

Qualified students are invited to join honor societies starting in their third year. These are good opportunities to connect with like-minded people, decorate your resume, and gain more leadership skills. The general engineering honors society isTau Beta Pi (TBP). The Mechanical Engineering specific honors society is Pi Tau Sigma (PTS). I was the president of PTS as well and was able to connect with Mechanical Engineers across the country as well as help organize both philanthropic and social events for our members. 

College campuses offer the wealth of knowledge and experience the professors and staff hold. Do not hesitate to walk into a professor’s office, even if you’ve never met him or her before. Ask them about their research or a question about an article you read that featured that professor’s research. If you find a professor whose lab interests you, ask if you can work as an undergraduate research assistant in his or her lab. Do it for money or make it count as class credit, such as your technical elective. My sophomore year I worked in Dr. Marilyn Minus’s lab assisting in the design of a fabrication process for carbon fiber. Take a look at the variety of research labs in the COE.

Co-op

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, we are lucky to have work experiences built into our curriculum. Many companies treat co-ops as if they are full time employees. Co-ops are great opportunities to set and achieve goals of over a six month time period. It is also good practice to set goals before applying to co-ops. Ask yourself what industry you would like to try, what size company, what type of job and responsibilities, and where you would like to work. If there are multiple answers to these questions, that’s why you have three co-ops. Sample different industries, company dynamics, job types, and locations. 

Check out this earlier COE blog post for specific ideas on how to get the most out of co-op. 

When given tasks in your co-ops, approach them with a learning mentality. Strive to learn as much from that task and who you come in contact with while carrying out that task. Try to relate the theoretical concepts learned in classes to the practical skills learned on co-op. 
 

Medical mission trip to Petite
Riviere de l’Artibonite, Haiti – 2012

The reason I keep emphasizing this “learning mentality” is because knowledge is everything. On one of my trips to Haiti, I met a 22-year-old native Haitian man who was volunteering as a translator at one of the clinics we were working at. After working by his side and talking with him all day, I realized how intelligent he was. He told me that he will, “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Education is power.” He could speak Spanish and French in addition to English and Creole (Haiti’s official language) and was studying pharmacology, yet lived in a shack and had never been able to travel outside of his third world country. I still consider him one of the truly wealthiest individuals I have ever met simply because of his knowledge and desire to never stop learning. 

Bringing it back to maximizing opportunities, try this exercise every couple months or so while in college. Picture yourself in the future walking into the interview of your post-college dream job. You’re dressed to the nines, fully caffeinated, and you hand your future resume to your interviewer. What’s on that resume that depicts your experience, knowledge, and qualities showing that you deserve that job over any competing candidate? What work experiences do you want on there? Maybe you want a co-op at a well-respected company or an on-the-rise startup. What degree or degrees do you want on there and in what disciplines? What skills or other interesting information do you want that describes you? Now work backwards and get those co-ops, get those degrees, learn those skills, and have those interesting experiences.

What’s Next

I will be graduating with a BS and MS this May and starting work as a Mechanical Engineer in an Engineering Leadership Development Program at Pratt & Whitney in June. I fully believe that I would not be in the position I am today had I not had access to and taken advantage of the opportunities discussed throughout this blog post. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about the content of the article at waite.a@husky.neu.edu or andrewwaite.org

As a last word, just work hard at whatever you do. Our society consists of instant gratification fostering social media and comfort-everything. Fight those aspects and realize our society also consists of unlimited accessibility to media, information, and data and previously unfathomable technology.