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Mentoring – For Best Results, Start Early

Several years ago, we started hiring our engineering interns out of high school in addition to college students.  We didn’t have a bad experience with college interns, it’s just that I was intrigued to see what a high school student could contribute.  I felt like the internship would have more impact on a younger student and hopefully remain a compelling experience for them as they moved through college.

Here in Arizona, Paradise Valley High School, offers an engineering curriculum.  Their CREST program offers students an engineering focused education and actually requires them to do a 200 hour internship to graduate.

I was wondering about how these internships usually work so I phoned the program coordinator.  He told me that some of the internships are unpaid, but that due to child labor laws (some of the students are not yet 18) unpaid interns could not work on any commercial project and could only work on mock projects.  

I had no interest in mock projects, students can get those in class.  I didn’t want to make up work for them, and I wanted them to do commercially beneficial projects and even sweep the floors if that’s what was needed.  We decided to pay our interns so we could give them little bits of real work.

Our business consists of both product design consulting as well as the manufacturing of our own product line.  No client wants to be billed for the work of an intern, so they don’t participate in the consulting side of the business.  We like to have them do work that has real world value, but no consequence to the product or customer if they blunder.

I like to let the students stumble on projects and learn to find their own way.  Being able to learn on the fly is one of the most important engineering skills.  I don’t think it’s a skill that’s learned as much as it is practiced.  The more you’re stuck, the more tools you’ll find for getting unstuck.

One example project was a testing apparatus.  We wanted to test our product to a certain specification, so we gave the intern, Bennett, the name of the spec and told him to find it, read it, and fabricate the equipment needed.  Once he had a design, we’d review it and help him with the fabrication, and point him to where he could find the parts.

I tell all of our interns about McMaster-Carr right away.  If you don’t already know about McMaster, it’s a behemoth industrial supply whose paper catalog is something like 4000 pages – people even sell them on eBay, not kidding.  If the intern has nothing to do, they are instructed to open a browser to the McMaster.com website and just start reading.  I’m a big proponent that the engineering craft is one part skill (practiced) and one part vocabulary (learned) and that without vocabulary, you can’t create anything.  Read my article on “What I Learned about Design Creativity from a Jazz Musician” for more of my thoughts on that.

As Bennett dug in, first he had to figure out where to find an engineering spec, then how to buy it, he had to read it and understand the technical jargon.  Once Bennett understood what was needed, he had to decide how to build the equipment.  He sketched some, then we gave him little pointers of how to save time by using off the shelf parts.  This is where “vocabulary” is useful; you can’t use an off the shelf part in your design if you don’t know it exists.

After a few days of revising sketches, and figuring out the bill of materials to be ordered, he got to work in the machine shop and build the custom parts that couldn’t be gotten off the shelf.  Time in the shop is about practice.  And hey, getting grease off your hands is an engineering skill too.

I learned the power of getting in way over your head from my first boss George Opie.  There’s no better way to learn as a young engineer than to be given tasks that are just beyond your current abilities.  When I was just starting out, George gave me some pretty big responsibilities and even my spectacular failures were learning experiences.  The only change I’ve made to his formula is that I like to put students on projects where failure might be embarrassing and expensive, but that won’t impact customers.

I’ve been really impressed with what our high school students are able to contribute.  I find the students at this level know more than they think.  College students, by their senior year on the other hand, have begun to think they really know it all.  The attitude of the younger students is refreshing.  Tomorrow our 5th student will start her internship and it will be fun to see what she contributes by the end of summer.