Engineering students available to solve business problems in WNY

Rohan Kuriakose (right), an electrical engineering student, and Chengyu Jiang, an aerospace engineering student, work on an experiental learning project at UB. Credit: Onion Studio.

By Grove Potter

Release Date: December 8, 2016

Andrew Olewnik, PhD, director of the Experiential Learning Program. Credit: Onion Studio.

“Although companies want a certain GPA, virtually every company will trade a few tenths of a GPA for some outside experience you have.”
Andrew Olewnik, director of UB Engineering's Experiential Learning Program

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The intellectual power of a research university is an awesome force. But how can those outside the institution — particularly businesses — access it?

The University at Buffalo has a program in its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to make its young minds available to local businesses.

“A company can fill out an online form, define the problem, and I post it to the UB Career Services job board. The students must submit a resume and cover letter — apply for a job — and we try to build a team or two depending on the nature of the project,” said Andrew Olewnik, PhD, director of the Experiential Learning Program in the engineering school.

The students pursue these opportunities as extracurricular projects to gain experience.

“Everybody goes to class. That’s sort of the minimum requirement. Although companies want a certain GPA, virtually every company will trade a few tenths of a GPA for some outside experience you have,” Olewnik said. “I try to convey that to students at orientation.”

Teams built for each project

The student teams work four to five hours a week for 10 weeks. Teams are assembled specifically for each challenge. One team had mechanical, chemical and industrial engineering students determine if a small heat exchanger could be made out of plastic with a 3-D printer.

“They did research on materials, worked with a 3-D printer on campus, and at the end they gave a report and presentation to the company. They worked with Buffalo Manufacturing Works to get some of their prototype printed,” Olewnik said.

Did it work?

“For this company, they didn’t have a lot of experience with 3-D printing. This gives them a jumping off point, especially with Buffalo Manufacturing Works,” an advanced manufacturing laboratory funded by the Buffalo Billion economic development initiative, he said.

Identifying future employees

Some of the companies identify students through the program to hire as interns.

Curbell Medical, an Orchard Park medical devices company, has had two different teams assist with company challenges, said Don Gibson, vice president of marketing.

“We were looking for innovative thinkers,” he said. “We really needed to expand our thinking and look at what is happening in the marketplace around new technologies. A vital piece of future growth will be to link into technology that will reduce costs and improve outcomes in health care.”

The company is making products for managing falls, monitoring electrocardiogram (ECG) activity and expanding the scope of patient control devices that enable hospital patients to call for assistance, access the TV and control their room environment.

“We’re going to be launching a new device, and students contributed to some of the new features on the advanced platform,” Gibson said.

On another occasion, a team took a close look at an ECG clip the company makes to connect the lead wire to the adhesive electrode that connects to a patient’s chest. When patients moved, the clips would sometimes disconnect and trigger a false alarm. The students came up with several variations of new clips, which the company is now considering.

“But more valuable than all of that,” Gibson said, “there was a student who saw what we were doing here and enjoyed the experience and applied for an internship and is now is employed here full time. That’s a valuable outcome of what we are trying to do here.”

End game for businesses: finding talent

M&T Bank has had the same result.

Mark Kumro, group vice president for technology strategic initiatives, has utilized several undergraduate engineering teams. One group designed and built a tablet app for job applicants to use at job fairs. Recruiters can place confidential notes on the forms and the information can be shared with other departments.

“And the form can be customized with the logos and colors of the schools we are visiting,” Kumro said.

In addition to utilizing their engineering skills, the bank also takes note of the students who contribute in hopes of hiring some.

“That’s the end game of this whole thing,” he said. “We bring students on for internships and we hope some of them will be turned into full-time employment.”

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