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Olin program offers training, solutions

Olin College engineering program aids companies, helps build careers

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Jason Curtis and Jaime McCandless worked on a circuit board at Olin College in Needham.

John Fox, chief executive of Parietal Systems Inc. in North Andover, had a tough engineering job and small budget. So he turned to Olin College in Needham, where a team of six engineering students built a robot that would allow Parietal to demonstrate its machine learning software.

The cost to the company, which creates advanced data analytics for the Department of Defense, was $50,000, a fraction of what it would have cost for professional engineers to do the job. But the results were so good that Parietal this year engaged another team of five Olin students to enhance the robot’s artificial intelligence and functionality.

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“It’s been excellent,’’ Fox said. “We’re seeing a lot of benefits to being involved.’’

The students, all seniors, were part of an unusual program at Olin that aims to provide them with real-world experience and support the innovations that drive the economy and keep local companies competitive. Known as the Senior Capstone Program in Engineering, or SCOPE, the program is a graduation requirement for seniors that lasts through the school year and pairs teams of students with companies, ranging from small start-ups to large national operations.

The students tackle projects that companies are interested in pursuing but don’t have the time or money to pursue in-house, said Andrew Bennett, the director of SCOPE. Each company pays Olin $50,000 to sponsor a team of five to seven students, with the money used to support the program. Olin fielded 13 on the team this year.

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“What Olin wanted to do was tie the capstone more to the needs of industry and give students a better feel of what it’s like to be out in the field,’’ Bennett said.

Since the program began in 2005, Olin has deployed its engineering talent to more than 50 companies, developing and expanding on projects in a range of disciplines, from creating robotic vehicles for the Army to improving medical devices for Boston Scientific Corp.

Scott Thomson is a senior working on a team for AGCO, an agricultural equipment manufacturer in Georgia. AGCO’s challenge involved the tanks mounted on its tractors that hold water, fertilizer, and pesticides farmers spray on their fields.

Each time the tanks are drained - 10 to 20 times a day - drivers must dismount manually to fill the tank, and mix fertilizers and pesticides. Thomson’s team is working on a system to do all this automatically to save time, increase productivity, and limit exposure to the chemicals.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,’’ said Thomson, 22, of Delaware. “It’s a chance to get real-world experience, to work on a real-world design project while we’re still at school.’’

For students, it’s an experience that helps them to pursue their careers. Nearly 9 out of 10 Olin students get jobs or go to graduate school after completing their degrees. Thomson will work for Facebook in California after graduating in May.

The program also provides an opportunity for companies to recruit engineering talent, which is in high demand. For small companies like Parietal, which employs 17, the program allows it the get the attention of students, who might otherwise be wooed by larger firms. Parietal has hired four Olin graduates over the past couple of years.

“We have the ability to get our name out on campus,’’ said Fox, Parietal’s chief executive, “so that when we recruit we have a leg up on the Microsofts and Googles of the world.’’ Olin College, founded to change the way engineering is taught, is a young school, admitting its first full class of students in 2002. The school has 330 students.

Each student graduates with a degree in engineering and concentrates in a specific area of the field such as mechanical, biomedical, electrical, or computer engineering. About 40 percent of its graduates were women in 2010; nationally, women accounted for only 18 percent of those receiving engineering degrees that year, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

This year’s program ends May 15 - five days before graduation - with Exposition Day, when seniors showcase the work they did for the sponsoring companies, as well as companies interested in sponsoring teams in the future. For students, the exposition is a final opportunity to show the school and surrounding community how hard they have been working.

“It’s the experience where they get to show off what they’ve done,’’ said Jessica Townsend, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and a faculty adviser to SCOPE. “It’s a culmination of professional development as well as technical skills.’’

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.
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