Once students get a handle on essential engineering skills, they look for hands-on opportunities to hone them before entering the working world. One group of Northrop Grumman engineers has been challenging students to apply a wide range of skills under a particular set of projects, collectively known as Tech for Conservation (T4C). The T4C projects pair Northrop Grumman engineers with conservation organizations to enable technological innovation to solve problems in the natural world. Engineers learn how to apply technology outside of traditional areas — and bring in students to collaborate on solving those problems.
“I got a whole new perspective on what Northrop Grumman engineers can do,” said Rachel Fernandez, a software engineering major at California State University San Marcos who has given careful consideration to how she wanted to spend her time this summer. “I was looking to be a part of something that would kind of make an impact on the world and our country and make me feel like I was making a difference, so I chose Northrop Grumman,” she said. Fernandez has been interning for the Freshwater Co-benefits Explorer project team which uses algorithm development, User Interface/User Experience and customer engagement to digitally model freshwater contribution in rivers and tributaries to show how freshwater protection has an effect on downstream water quality. The project’s subject matter is familiar for one of her fellow interns. “I worked on an engineering team like this at school,” said Lindsey Bjornstad, an aerospace engineering major at MIT. “We were tracking water pollution in freshwater rivers, so this project very much overlaps with that experience — I’m excited to continue that passion.”
Students are currently exposed to T4C challenges either as final classroom projects or through internships where they work alongside Northrop Grumman engineers. In a project at James Madison University (JMU), students are designing a smart buoy system to host a sensor suite and data acquisition system capable of monitoring oyster reefs and tracking turtles. “This project gave me experience that I have not had before,” said Ritavash Chowdhury, a JMU student working on the buoy project. “I have gotten the opportunity to work with my subsystem, other subsystems and the stakeholder in order to help solve complex engineering problems and I have gained feedback that will help me grow as a student and a future engineer.”
Still, these Northrop Grumman projects provide students with challenges, opportunities and perspectives that go beyond standard coursework. “In our project, we’re learning about time and space complexity as well as how to make a program run faster and cheaper,” said Fernandez. “In school you don’t really focus on that as much, but in an actual work environment, those factors have been vital.”
Adam Latreille, a University of Michigan computer engineering major, is similarly experiencing a different way of utilizing his skillsets in his T4C project. “I’ve done a little bit of machine learning work in my classes, but only with images,” he said. His T4C acoustic project has him identifying temporal and spatial patterns in acoustic data that can be utilized for both conservation and defense applications. This includes spatial awareness, location and detection when visuals and other sensing data cannot be collected, like when water is cold and murky. “I’m learning a lot about the intricacies of how we get that acoustic data, and how it can be manipulated to improve the performance of a machine learning classifier,” said Latreille. “I’ve never really worked with data that hasn’t been set up perfectly to run on a machine learning model. But with this project, I’m learning to prepare it for a model.”
Other useful skills that students practice include time management, speed to meet tight deadlines and operating on teams. “A program like this helps me understand what engineering is really about and what professional engineers do,” said Hemant Patel, an engineering major who has been working on the JMU buoy project. “There was this constant communication and negotiating between the sub-teams on what could work and couldn’t work to make the buoy as a whole. This part was my favorite aspect of the project because it really showed me what engineers do in their day jobs.”
As these students finish their internships and look to future opportunities, they’ll have their experiences with T4C at Northrop Grumman to serve them as sources of inspiration and preparation. “[Our project manager] has done such a great job with guiding us, but also giving us autonomy over the project as well, which I did not expect at all,” said Bjornstad. “I expected to come in and be part of an established 20-plus year program and do this-and-that and not have much impact. But [with the freshwater project], we’re seeing results within the day and quickly going from requirements to delivering a working prototype. I can see the direct impact I’m making and I like that a lot.”
For additional information about T4C, visit www.northropgrumman.com/T4C. For more information about internships at Northrop Grumman, search “internships” at www.northropgrumman.com.
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