Preparing tomorrow’s problem solvers

By Richard Claridge

When clients come to us, very often they’re looking for a new way to solve a problem. They’re looking for ingenuity, and that means having business sense with a spark of creativity. It’s about a diverse team of experts coming together to ask themselves new questions and come up with innovative solutions.

But imagine you’re starting out on an engineering career, or one in industrial design, or maybe electronics. How much of your university training has prepared you for what I’ve just described? There are plenty of clever graduates out there, but not that many who are ready to get straight into solving real problems for businesses.

And that’s why we started the summer internship programme at our Global Innovation & Technology Centre in Cambridge. It’s part of a bigger STEM programme that also includes work experience and apprenticeships around science, technology, engineering and maths.

Tackling tomorrow’s problems

For ten weeks, undergraduates getting ready for their final year at university get a taste of what it takes to develop technology and get it out into the world. They get to work on real projects straight out of our consultants’ notebooks. They’re the kind of problems we think clients will want to solve in the next few years, and where we don’t know the answer yet. If things go really well, our interns could even get their names on a patent.

We’ve just finished year six of the programme, where interns worked on eight projects including:

  • a scenario planning tool to help work out the impact of quantum technology
  • a set of solutions to polar explorers’ problems, from packing more calories into their food to helping them recharge batteries at -40℃
  • a combination of surface coating and materials technology to make a consumer product more sustainable (this one’s hush-hush – it could lead to a patent…)

There’s no shortage of undergraduates ready to spend their summer break tackling that kind of challenge. This year, 2,500 students applied for 21 places.

What kind of students are we after? A mix of disciplines is vital. In the last few years they’ve ranged from mechanical, electrical and software engineers, to industrial designers and scientists. And while previous work experience will help, we’re also looking for something else: students working beyond their degrees because they’re interested in solving problems. They’re probably writing apps or building circuit boards just because they want to, not because it’s an assignment.

Working across disciplines

On the 10-week programme, students get experience of things their courses don’t include, like working in multi-disciplinary teams. One team included electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, biologists, ergonomic specialists and industrial design specialists, among others. It was the first time the students had worked alongside people from other disciplines, something a lot of careers demand. It’s certainly an essential part of developing technology.

Students also get to work with an internal client and define and work through a brief. PA staff supervise the project, help develop the project plan and offer coaching, but don’t work on the project directly. Students get to plan how to take ideas through development quickly. And they get to present those ideas, not just to their internal clients, but also potential customers. This year’s interns pitched to leading business figures at Disruption Summit Europe.

Staying in STEM

Most of our interns have stayed in STEM after graduating. Of the 56 we’ve welcomed, 12 have gone on to work for us, either developing technology or as consultants. More than half the projects they’ve worked on as interns have had a lasting effect on what we do.

One project looking at ultra-fast 3D printing was well ahead of its time and became part of what we offer in this area. Another developed a defibrillator with parts that could be re-used instead of being disposed of once the battery was used up. This helped shape our thinking on circular design, which has become increasingly important to our clients. Also, two intern projects have led to patent-pending technology.

The programme can lead to other things too. One of our 2017 interns, a digital engineer, has become a STEM ambassador, teaching Code First: Girls classes and speaking on behalf of PA at a major global event on the need for better-linking education with real-world careers.

The search for 2019’s interns is already on.

About the authors

Richard Claridge PA applied physics expert Richard is an applied physicist based at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge. Richard uses a broad physics base to identify and accelerate new to world technologies to market by applying his scientific understanding to the core technical need.

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