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Valuable Training Through Industry-Based Projects

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2013
Karen A. Newman, Group Publisher, karen.newman@photonics.com

Most people agree that students can’t really learn practical workplace skills from a textbook any more than you can learn to ride a bicycle by watching the Tour de France on television. Learning professional skills and behavior requires practice, preferably through interaction with industry mentors. Internships are ideal but often difficult to arrange for every student who needs one. We found that industry-sponsored projects carried out on campus or at the industry site are effective in developing students’ critical thinking, time management and communication skills. We really like these projects! – Judy Donnelly, Three Rivers Community College, column curator

As a student, Giovanni Tomasi – now president of RSL Fiber Systems in East Hartford, Conn. – connected with industry through factory visits and interactions with technical professionals. As an intern at Perkin-Elmer, he says, he learned more about professional life than he ever could have in school.

Today, Tomasi participates in industry-based projects with students from several New England community colleges, and it was his own student experience that led him to approach a local school in search of help with a project for RSL Fiber Systems.

“I wanted to give the same benefit to students, and always liked the community college system due to the focus and drive of the student body and the hands-on approach being taught,” Tomasi said.

Together with Judy Donnelly of Three Rivers Community College (TRCC) in Norwich, Conn. (who curates this column); Nicholas Massa of Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College (STCC); and Flemming Tinker of Aperture Optical Sciences in Durham, Conn., Tomasi wrote about their experience with industry-based projects in a paper funded in part by the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing, a project of the Advanced Technological Education program of the National Science Foundation.

The paper, delivered at SPIE’s Optics and Photonics in 2012 (doi:10.1117/12.929178), reported on several sponsored capstone projects, including one with a student from STCC’s Lasers and Electro Optics Technology (LEOT) program; the goal was to make a prototype fiber optic cable system that could deliver light from remotely located LEDs to the exterior taillights on a Volvo truck.

Over the two semesters of the capstone project, the student worked on design criteria and possible solutions with technical staff from both RSL Fiber Systems and Volvo Trucks in Brazil. Key issues discussed were the selection of LEDs and optical fiber, and measuring the luminous output of the system. The student did ultimately demonstrate a viable system to both sponsoring companies – and did such a good job that he is now on the RSL Fiber Systems payroll, Tomasi said recently.

Another student came on board to tackle the second phase of the project, and Tomasi said she did very well and is now an intern with the company as she pursues her four-year engineering degree.

Tomasi started working with TRCC in the mid-’90s during the fiber telecom boom, initially providing cable lengths for connector termination training and other projects, putting to good use the short cables that would otherwise have been scrapped.

Another TRCC project Tomasi worked on involved a contest to build a fiber optic solar collector. After spending more than $18,000 to have a consultant build a prototype, RSL Fiber Systems offered a couple thousand dollars to a number of local colleges to see what they could do with the project. “For some, it was not enough money to bother,” Tomasi said, “but TRCC took up the challenge and built a collector under budget and under the allotted time that outperformed the one from our consultant.”

Another business owner who has long sought talent from all available sources since even before the company organized is Martin Seifert, president of Nufern in East Granby, Conn.

He started working with design students on senior projects eight years ago; all have been memorable, highly motivated students working on small but relevant projects that might otherwise not have been tackled without their contributions, he said.

Seifert finds particularly memorable the projects that “start out as disasters and morph into gemstones.” Among these is a University of Connecticut effort three years ago that transformed from coil winding to a successful machine vision project.

An educator’s perspective

On the flip side of the industry-based project equation are the educators involved in bringing these opportunities to their students. Donnelly currently is program coordinator for the Laser and Fiber Optic Technology program at TRCC. The ideal industry-based project should be first and foremost a “real problem, as opposed to busywork.”

It is best if a student can work with a company engineer directly, Donnelly said, because that emphasizes the importance of the work they’re doing and makes students feel like a part of a “real world” team.

A TRCC student worked on a very successful project with Nufern this spring, designing a protection circuit for a small fiber laser, she reported. The student met with Seifert to decide on project parameters, then met with Nufern engineers throughout the semester and presented the project to Three Rivers’ Laser and Fiber Optic Technology industry advisory committee.

As program coordinator, Donnelly finds one of the toughest parts of bringing companies and students together is the time it takes to find projects for all the students who want them. “We need three to four projects each year to make sure that all our student teams have a chance to participate,” Donnelly said. “Once a company comes up with a project idea, the rest of the process is fairly straightforward.”

Students are required to document their work in a bound notebook, make and keep to a timeline, produce regular status reports, write a final report and develop a poster presentation to the industry advisory committee at its yearly meeting in May. (Note: This is the same at STCC.)

For the most part, Donnelly and her colleagues have been happy with projects suggested for her school’s students. “Industry oversight has been helpful in cultivating the nontechnical skills that are so important to productive employees,” she said. “For example, I can talk about documentation until I’m hoarse, but it doesn’t have the same effect as a supervising engineer saying, ‘You need to write everything down in a bound notebook.’ ”

Donnelly and her colleagues hear time and time again from industry that graduates at all levels know their technical facts but don’t know how to manage a project, document a process, think critically or write reports – all of which are essential to a successful capstone project.

“A company can make a positive contribution to educating just the kind of worker they’re seeking by supervising a student project,” Donnelly said.

Nothing’s impossible

There are other important advantages for the optics and photonics industry resulting from companies working with students on real-world projects. Tomasi believes that students bring a fresh approach to projects by looking at them from new angles. “Students have not been around in industry long enough to know that something is ‘impossible.’ They don’t have a ‘box’ to think within,” he said.

The advantage is “better-trained and engaged potential employees – or goodwill ambassadors, if at the time of graduation the candidate elects to take a position elsewhere,” Seifert added.



‘Encouragement should be unnecessary’

Giovanni Tomasi of RSL Fiber Systems and Martin Seifert of Nufern have both worked with local community college students on industry-based projects. They talked recently with Photonics Spectra about some of the advantages and disadvantages of participating.

Q: What would you say are the biggest advantages for a company such as yours in working with a school and its students in this way?

Seifert: We develop branding at the college level, we see all of the candidates, [and] we get a six-month interview.

Tomasi: The local community college system allows us to tap into excellent talent, both students and professors. Professors are very connected to industry and often come from industry. It gives us an opportunity to try out students before we make a hiring decision. Our CAD expert was an intern from Three Rivers Community College, where he was getting retrained in a new set of skills.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges?

Tomasi: One of the challenges was working around the class schedule when we hire students as interns, but this has been a minor problem since they are very dedicated and flexible. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Connecticut community college system (and the entire Connecticut educational system) is to bring the quality of the state’s business environment up to the same level as the quality of the students graduating from our schools. Connecticut schools rank very high nationwide; however, Connecticut is ranked toward the bottom in terms of pro-business environment. Many students have to relocate to find employment, depleting the state of great resources.

Seifert: Finding new and valuable projects at the rate that schools ask for them.

Q: What would you say to encourage other companies to work with students in this way?

Tomasi: Our experience is that most students entering technical [curricula] in community colleges are very focused on learning marketable skills and entering the workforce. They carry this attitude in the projects they are assigned. Many students come from other sectors of industry and are in a community college to get retrained, so the level of experience and maturity is very high.

Seifert: They should only work with students if they would like to get the best candidates and maximize their own chance for success. Encouragement should be unnecessary.

Most people agree that students can’t really learn practical workplace skills from a textbook any more than you can learn to ride a bicycle by watching the Tour de France on television. Learning professional skills and behavior requires practice, preferably through interaction with industry mentors. Internships are ideal but often difficult to arrange for every student who needs one. We found that industry-sponsored projects carried out on campus or at the industry site are effective in developing students’ critical thinking, time management and communication skills. We really like these projects!


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