Alumnus Finds Challenging an MIT Student to Be…Well…Challenging

by Amy Marcott on April 2, 2012 · 1 comment

in Alumni Life, IAP, Student Life

Guest blogger: Orlando Soto ’05

Orlando Soto '05 guides Vanessa Treviño '13 in a project.

Orlando Soto ’05 guides Vanessa Treviño ’13 in a project.

When I learned that MIT was reaching out to alumni and trying to match undergraduate students with externship opportunities, I jumped at opportunity to serve as a host. I knew Goddard Technologies, the engineering and design consulting company I work for in Boston’s north shore, would provide exactly the kind of fast-paced, dynamic environment that MIT undergrads need in order to prevent their high-octane neurons from turning to mush.

From the beginning, I was very excited about the quality of all the applicants in the program. The difficult part was actually choosing a “lucky” first-choice candidate from the pool of excellent undergraduates—I actually ended up staying in touch with some other undergrads just in case we have any summer internship openings. In the end, Vanessa Treviño ’13 became our extern.

I had warned Vanessa that we do things a little differently here at Goddard – we would load her up with responsibility until she cried uncle, we would encourage her to lead discussions and participate in brainstorms, and we would expect her to design and build prototypes and then show us how awesome they actually work. None of this seemed to faze Vanessa, and I really felt like I did not have to hold back once we were in the throes of engineering and design.

The first project I had her work on involved putting some of her engineering theory to real-world use: calculating maximum bending stress and deflection of a medical device under different loading configurations. True to MIT MechE nature, she didn’t even break a sweat when tackling straight theory. “OK, so you’re good with numbers. Now go write the report,” I said to Vanessa.  Off she went and wrote the foundations of a well-written report that came back exceedingly well reviewed by our client.

Vanessa Treviño '13 hard at work on a project.

Vanessa Treviño ’13 hard at work on a prototype.

So I decided to challenge Vanessa on a front where I thought she would be a little raw: practical engineering in the context of actual product design and development.

No compartmentalized academic problems here—make too many assumptions for the purposes of framing your little academic “beam-bending” problem and you’re sunk: So it’s a structural beam in bending…did you consider friction? What about fatigue strength of the material? Did you forget to consider that this operates in a saline environment? Did you remember to consider coatings and finishes that may let you get away with a material that would otherwise be unusable in its raw state? What about wear characteristics? Oh, and you do realize that this component is part of a real product which will be sold for profit, so you didn’t design it out of super-awesome-expensivite—did you?

These considerations threw Vanessa a little more off-balance, but she was able to learn and adapt very quickly, even making some suggestions I had not yet considered.

The realization that in engineering practice there could be hundreds of correct answers that are each different in terms of how well they address the underlying problem whereas in many academic mechanical engineering classes you are required to show your work such that the path to the one correct solution is documented was the one lesson I hoped to teach Vanessa as part of this externship. Sometimes finding the best answer requires some mental engineering gymnastics that can only come with practical knowledge and experience (read: mistakes).

I think she got it.

*Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts from MIT students and alumni who were involved in the 2012 Student/Alumni Externship Program, which connected current students to alumni in workplaces worldwide during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. Alumni, learn how to get involved. This is just one way for alumni to interact with MIT students. Learn about other opportunities.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bruce Mendelsohn April 6, 2012 at 7:51 am

Thanks for this interesting blog, Orlando. You’ll be pleased to find out that we invited Vanessa Trevino to join the first year of the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, in which she’ll have plenty of opportunities to hone her engineering leadership skills.

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