CAMBRIDGE, MA—For many aspiring engineers, a summer internship means spending the days in an assistant’s role, supporting the projects of established engineers. Draper takes a different approach to the internship experience, giving students their own project and trusting them to take it from concept to completion. This summer, a team of six undergraduate students and one graduate student brought a robot to life that can climb vertical glass surfaces and deploy wireless sensor nodes as it goes. The students were challenged to manage the project just as professional engineers. The project provided them an opportunity to experience a large portion of the product development process—define requirements and develop a concept of operations, hold preliminary and critical design reviews, manage customer expectations, manage financials and ultimately deliver a functional prototype in 10 weeks.
Draper funded the student project and provided access to Draper’s facilities and expert technical staff as part of its commitment to the advancement of education. The team’s advisor, Corey Juarez, a mechanical engineer in Draper’s Electronics and Systems Packaging group, designed the internship to allow students to work collaboratively with a small team and gain hands-on, applicable real world experience and complete ownership of their work. But he also sees value for his company. “R&D companies like Draper have a huge role to play in encouraging and helping young people to choose engineering careers. By giving summer interns responsibility for a real project from start to finish, we are growing the next generation of talent.”
Calling their project Quarter-Inch, the Draper-sponsored students designed a mobile robot capable of climbing a glass surface. To do this, the students developed and managed a project plan that included a budget for labor, materials, modeling and simulation, design reviews and demonstrations. Using modularity as a design strategy, the team built, tested, refined and demonstrated a mobile robot—and overcame a number of obstacles, such as foot compliance and body rigidity, timing and foot actuation sequences and displacement from the wall. One of the requirements imposed on the students was to leverage Draper’s MicroHold technology, a material that clings to smooth, nonporous surfaces like glass or metal by applying a technique inspired by one of nature’s greatest climbers: the gecko.
A win-win for students and employers alike, this kind of experiential learning addresses a gap in skills pervasive among new hires in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries. “Giving students control over their own projects is critical to preparing them for a career in engineering” says Sheila Hemami, Director of Strategic Technical Opportunities at Draper. “Students get an advantage in the competitive job market by developing valuable project management skills they can’t learn from a textbook. Draper’s vision is to fund multiple multidisciplinary projects each summer, and we have the support of management in terms of resources and financial commitment to do that.”
In a survey at the conclusion of the program, one student described the internship as “a comprehensive experience that taught real-life engineering skills.” Another said “the design and building of this robot gave true insight to the R&D mindset that Draper is known for, as well as the realistic practice of working in a group.” Throughout the internship, the students engaged with a variety of staff members and services at Draper—including the Center for Additive Manufacturing, the Machine Shop and the Procurement Office—and built motors, actuators, rapid prototypes, software code, mechanical designs and electromechanical integration.
Joining Juarez as students advisors were Chad Gibson, a Group Leader in Draper’s Electronics and Systems Packaging group, and William McFarland, leader of the Delivery Systems group at Draper.
Draper’s summer interns responsible for Quarter-Inch include Laura Anhalt, Boston University, Mechanical Engineering program; Justin DiPlacido, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Electrical Engineering program; Ian McGinty, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mechanical Engineering program; Nicholas Robinson, Northeastern University, Mechatronics master’s program; Serena Russell, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mechanical Engineering program; Mallory Whalen, M.I.T., Mechanical Engineering program; and Tim Zhang, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Electrical Engineering program.
Last year, Draper’s summer interns designed and built a human-powered flying machine in the form of a dragon inspired by Game of Thrones.