Tonawanda News

October 6, 2013

More than bridges

Real-world experience pays off for NT engineering academy students

By Jill Keppeler jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — During the months classically reserved for rest and relaxation — and maybe, a part-time job for pocket cash — a group of North Tonawanda High School students instead spent their summer hours visiting engineering job sites, working on architectural drawings and otherwise learning the ropes for their future.

Thirteen seniors from the school’s Academy of Engineering and Architecture took part in internships at 10 local companies this past summer, a requirement for the four-year, pre-university program that is now in its eighth year. And this year, more than ever before have been invited to return as actual employees, said Chris Cook, teacher and co-director of the academy.

“They’re going to be that much further ahead than other students they’re competing with,” he said. “It’s real-world experience. A big thing New York state is starting to push is career readiness. We’re been pushing career readiness for eight years.”

Students in the academy are required to take part in about 55 hours of internships their senior year. This year they are serving those hours at the City of North Tonawanda Engineering Department, Kideney Architects, Cannon Design, Safespan, Siracuse Engineers, Aquasol Corp., Taylor Devices, Danforth Co., Aero Instruments & Avionics, HDM Hydraulics and Mark Cerrone Inc. Experiences ranged from those as simple as answering office phones and filing to working on plans and visiting sites.

Student Kyle Bortz had worked for Safespan in Tonawanda before, he said, but that was “more grunt work.” Over the summer, he worked on computer-assisted design and bringing design drawings up to date — experience he just couldn’t get in school, he said.

“In a classroom, it’s more theoretical. You can see the parts, but you can’t touch them,” Bortz said. “When you’re out ... seeing the parts, putting them together, you experience a lot more than you ever could in a classroom. The experience is so much more beneficial.”

Some students focused on architecture, while others were more into the engineering side of things, and some used the time as a way to help figure out where their dominant interests were. In at least one case, the experience helped a student realize his interests lay elsewhere. 

And at their young age, crossing something off the list is hardly a bad thing.

Brandon Dirmyer said that he enjoyed and learned a lot from his internship with Siracuse Engineers in Buffalo, during which he was able to visit job sites and review drawings for projects with his mentor, among other tasks. However, he’s decided that his interests lie more in the computer field.

“It gave me a lot of experience. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it,” Dirmyer said. “And after, I decided that field wasn’t specifically for me, so I decided to go into something else. But it was a great opportunity.”

Student Michael Carroll spent his internship at the City of North Tonawanda Engineering Department — where he also hopes to take a paid internship when he starts college at the University at Buffalo next fall. As well as office work, Carroll said he was able to witness a lot of field work, including work on NT’s Frederick Durkee Memorial Bridge, the city marina and planning the city’s 9/11 memorial, of which he is one of the original contest-winning designers.

The internship gave him an interesting perspective on the work that goes into making a design a reality, Carroll said. 

“It wasn’t just designing it, the way it looked, but having to figure out how to actually make it happen,” he said. “I wasn’t sure when I went into it ... but this definitely lead me to civil engineering. That’s it, I’m going to UB for for civil engineering.”

Carroll said he was able to draft various plans and sit in on department head meetings, as well, and lauded NT City Engineer Dale Marshall for his mentorship.

“He didn’t just tell me or show me,” Carroll said. “He took the time to explain what’s going on and why we’re doing it.”

Marshall has set up internships for both high school students and paid internships for college students, generally from UB, for years. He said it’s a system that helps both sides: The department gives the students experience (and for the college interns, a job) and the interns help make ends meet at the engineering department, which has suffered cutbacks over the years.

“It’s a symbiotic thing; we mutually benefit,” he said. “They can do everything. It’s great experience for them. It’s hugely important for these kids to get this experience. and they get it here because we do it all.”

The students learn things as simple as answering the phone, dealing with callers and office work such as filing, mailing and typing, to more field-specific work such as mapping underground locations for contractors, surveying, learning to use Niagara County’s Geographic Information System and working on various in-house projects, Marshall said. 

“It’s sort of soup to nuts. They do the whole realm of what you do in an engineering office,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on that they can do. The two (college interns) I have right now are architects; they really have this visual thing down. They do everything, everything you would expect.”

The experience can motivate the students, who see “the light at the end of the tunnel,” Marshall said, and in return, he gets to promote his field. In fact, he hopes one of his protégés will succeed him — eventually.

“Someday, one of these interns, I hope, takes over my job ... comes back and says ‘I want to do that.’ “

Student Austin Glick spent his internship at Aquasol Corp. in North Tonawanda and was offered a further role (although he was unable to take it). Jonathon Gondek, mechanical engineer at Aquasol, said this was the second year an academy student served as an intern at the company, and they plan to continue the relationship in the future.

“I think it’s great for both sides,” he said. “I think one of the nice things is that it helps us bring in some young minds, some fresh ideas, especially when we get them involved in some product development. 

“It’s a nice opportunity for some of these young kids to get into the engineering environment and get a feel for it before they head to college.”

At any given time, the academy generally has about 70 students, with about 18 joining each class. June Mikulski, teacher and co-director of the academy, called the current class “exceptional.”

“I think that’s why they’re being offered these opportunities,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of positive comments about them. They’re been outstanding ... and we hope our program is what’s helping them to excel.”