2016 > June > Big Fish, Big Pond: Students Explore Careers in Mechatronics

Big Fish, Big Pond: Students Explore Careers in Mechatronics

Mechatronics may be hard to say, but it's easy to find work in. At Dallas Community Colleges, students with an associate degree in mechatronics are gaining employment long before their graduation ceremony.

Before we get into those details, however, you may be wondering what mechatronics is. Does it have to do with machines? Electronics? Programming? Robots?

Truth is, mechatronics is a little bit of everything.

Getting Started

Born and raised in Dallas, Yassien Fadul was always a bit of a tinkerer. So, when he began college, it was no surprise he connected with the engineering club right away. Yassien was eager to get his hands dirty  — and he did. The first semester he worked alongside his classmates to build an arcade game from scratch (just for fun). Next thing he knew, Yassien was enrolled in a foundational-level mechatronics course.

“The STEM coordinator at Mountain View College suggested it,” says Yassien. “In class we went over the basics of robotics, microprocessors, electricity, programming and automation controls. We also went over the laws of electricity and gas, pneumatics, hydraulics and schematic sensors. At the end we made a 2-​D printer.”

Professor Donald Morris helps students apply mechatronics to everyday life.

While some of this industry jargon might intimidate some students, Yassien was not afraid to learn new concepts. Many of these terms he had already heard of in the college's engineering club. And what he didn't know, he was determined to learn.

“It's the hands-on part that draws people,” explains Donald Morris, mechatronics faculty member at Mountain View College. “It is easy to learn theory, but it is a lot easier when you can get your hands on a concept. In mechatronics classes students are proving what they learn in calculus, chemistry and physics. The kids love it. And it makes them a better student.”

While Professor Morris uses the term “kids,” mechatronics students are a diverse group. Some students are learning mechatronics in high school as a dual credit student, while others are older and making a career shift to find a more secure, high-paying job. Whatever their age or career goals, DCCCD mechatronics students are receiving a higher education that actually gets them hired.

“Our students are not just gaining the wisdom of how to be a professional engineer,” adds Morris, “but also the exposure of how to relate things to the real world.”

Interning at Los Alamos

As a research facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has always been a major employer of mechatronics professionals. The lab uses science and technology to solve energy challenges and reduce global threats.

What makes LANL unique, however, from other research facilities is many of their working professionals are also students. LANL offers paid internship programs for high school, undergraduate and graduate level students.

“We have a vibrant student and postdoctoral program,” begins Charlie McMillian, LANL director, “because they are the talent who will solve the problems our predecessors only dreamed of.”

Not every student can be a student intern at LANL, however. They must apply, submit a resume, cover letter and educational transcript. 

“If LANL doesn't have a partnership with your school, they aren't going to pay attention to your resume,” says Morris. “The growing partnership between DCCCD and LANL is why we have not one but eight student interns studying in New Mexico this summer.”   

Nate Sanchez, a PhD student at LANL, researches material behavior in extreme conditions. Here he is using a powder guns to impact materials at high velocities.  Source: LANL on Flickr.

 

Summer Study in New Mexico

Among those eight lucky student interns: Yassien Fadul. On June 9 Yassien travelled to LANL's headquarters in New Mexico with seven classmates from Mountain View College, two of whom are also high school students from Duncanville ISD.

Currently eight DCCCD students are interning at LANL. Professor Morris hopes to grow that number next summer.

“Because of what these students learn in mechatronics class, they are already more than comfortable in this internship,” says Morris, who accompanied the students as a chaperone and fellow intern. “And if they complete their associate degree in mechatronics, Los Alamos will pay them $61,130 annually and pay for them to finish their bachelor's degree mechatronics or STEM.”

Few companies still offer educational benefits, especially at such a high level. For Yassien Fadul the idea of having his bachelor’s degree completely paid for has caused him to reconsider his pre-summer plans.

“I am looking into University of New Mexico now that I have had this internship,” explains Yassien, who just weeks ago had decided to transfer to Louisiana Tech. “It would allow me to continue working at Los Alamos and help pay for tuition. In fact, I am going tomorrow to visit with the some of UNM engineering professors.”

Mechatronics: The Work Itself

Before we continue our story, and yes, there are lots of great details still to come, you'll notice we have strayed from our original discussion of mechatronics in terms of the work itself. Let's get back to that. Let's talk about what type of projects mechatronics students (and professionals) tackle.

One example is a current research project surrounding renewable energy. Still very active in the mechatronics field, Professor Morris is exploring how we can better monitor heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and implement preventative maintenance. 

“All the students are working on different summer projects,” explains Morris. “Another thing we're exploring is how to use renewable energy to make our utility bills cheaper.”

Student Yassien Fadul is working on controlling temperature with wireless thermostats. He is also working with utilities and building automation systems.

“We are taking blueprints and putting them into 3D form,” explains Yassien. “In 3D we can look at air ducts and whatnot and see how air is moving through a building and what we need to pay attention to. We are using CAD [computer-aided design], which I learned in a Solid Works class at Mountain View, and Google Sketch, which I taught myself for fun.”

A Future in Mechatronics

From microcontrollers to hydraulic systems, students at Dallas Community Colleges are diving headfirst into the world of mechatronics. Hands-on classes make learning fun, and research projects give them a real taste of the working world. Their futures also look bright, with thousands of baby boomers retiring from the industry. Los Alamos National Laboratory alone is looking to hire more than 2,500 new employees within the next two years. Other big name employers include GM, Oculus and Boeing, to name a few.   

“Just recently I had another student find employment before graduation,” notes Morris. “He doesn't finish his associate degree until this fall but 3Z Automation already offered him a contract.”

Students finding industry work say their professors are the ones to thank. The faculty at Dallas Community Colleges works hard to find and create opportunities for the students. In return all they ask is students keep their GPA above a 3.0 average.

“I know a lot of what I learned at MVC and interning at Los Alamos will help me at university,” reflects Yassien. “I have had a great foundation. But I am just getting started. I am really anxious to see what is yet to come.”

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