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In real estate, they say the three most important factors are “location, location, location,” and that certainly can’t hurt a university interested in seeing as many of its graduates as possible hired by leading companies in desirable fields — like, say, aerospace. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the University of Central Florida, which has firms like Siemens, GE Global Research, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Mitsubishi, NASA, Disney, and Lockheed Martin located in close proximity to its campus, would see its talent in strong demand.

In fact, notes Seetha Raghavan, Ph.D., an associate professor with the university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, “there are more than 2,000 aerospace and related companies in Florida.”

But there is success, and then there’s success. UCF, for example, has been ranked for the fourth year in a row as the number one supplier of graduates to the U.S. aerospace and defense industries by Aviation Week. And in a recent underscoring of UCF’s close ties with the aerospace industry, the MAE department’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research secured a $500 million grant from Siemens.

“It’s pretty much the result of collaborative work — taking the individual strength of faculty within and outside UCF and aligning it to create valued research outcomes for industry, and helping students get a better training atmosphere so they’re prepared for future jobs,” says Raghavan. In the case of Siemens, its relationship with UCF’s students may have played a part in securing the massive grant, she adds. “They’ve been a long-time partner and collaborator; we’re right across the road from them,” Raghavan notes. “We’ve had a really good relationship with Siemens, and they know our students well.”

Understanding the Aerospace Industry

“There are a couple of things we do well with the aerospace industry,” she continues. “One is we really understand what they need. We try to align our capabilities and have collaborations with industry based on having a holistic knowledge base. We have faculty expertise in certain areas of aerospace engineering and know how to get them together with a directed effort.”

She uses UCF’s Center of Advanced Turbomachinery as an example. “The center has been created for research and student training, focusing on technologies for power generation, but also for aviation and space propulsion. These kind of centers are grounds for students to gain great hands-on experience that they can use in industry.”

This particular center speaks both to the preparation of students for their careers as well as deciphering areas of interest to industry. “For me, it was clearly an advantage that UCF has at least one research lab closely aligned with work we care about,” says Jason Dees, commercial technology leader for GE Global Research, who recalls his experience with university students when managing a lab for GE. At the time, he was doing gas turbine research into cooling for high-pressure components. “We worked with the UCF team because they had some expertise in an area we needed help with, and we had some promising interactions with them and their students,” he relates.

Dees recalls that the initial connection was made by his predecessor as manager. “It all started with a really excellent external facing tech presentation [by a UCF student] in an area we do a lot of work in at an industry event,” he explains. “[Our manager] was very impressed with the student and his work, and brought him in as an intern.”

The student then worked with Dees on his projects. “It was a positive experience because he got up to speed really quickly — that was the impressive part,” he says. “He’d already worked in a lab that works in an area important to our industry (there are only a handful of similar labs around the world, Dees points out). He knew what we do, knew the lingo, knew the basics. He contributed very quickly because of that.”

The GE lab ended up having another UCF intern as a result of that positive experience. The first intern was hired, and the second continued in school, got a master’s degree, and then was also hired by GE.

“There are a couple of things we do well with industry. One is we really understand what they need. We try to align our capabilities and have collaborations with industry based on having a holistic knowledge base. We have faculty expertise in certain areas of aerospace engineering and know how to get them together with a directed effort.”   -Seetha Raghavan

Collaborations and More

Internships represent just one way in which UCF students get to interface with — and impress — potential employers, says Raghavan. “Our centers also facilitate collaborations with industry, solving industry-related problems as research projects,” she says. “There, students and industry connect on a regular basis.”

Through these collaborations industry partners know the students are available, and interested in looking for internships, she continues. “A lot of them work with companies even before graduating; it’s a really good way to connect with them,” says Raghavan. Companies involved in the student collaborations include major players like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, “and even new companies doing satellite production,” she says. “That growth in Florida is crucial to the development of engineers.”

In addition, she says, students incorporate industry-related projects into their theses — senior design projects they work on for research credits. “We build that industry need into them,” she explains. “We have constant meetings and collaborations [with industry]. At the beginning of a semester we collect information on what the industry partner wants to work on, and then match students with programs.”

The Department of Aerospace Engineering, she continues, has just launched a new Ph.D. program. UCF believes this will attract even more students (currently over 4,000 students are enrolled in MAE programs). “We’ve just been approved for the first intake,” says Raghavan.

In addition to its foundational courses, UCF has an Engineering Leadership Institute that “helps students become familiar with what they will need in the future — communication, management, leadership — how to develop the ‘soft’ skills in addition to the ‘hard’ skills,” she explains. “Multiple visitors come in — alumni, leaders in industry — and talk to the students about their experiences. This inspires the students, and also helps them learn about what’s important.”

UCF’s outreach efforts involving students include “Career First,” days where students get to meet a large variety of companies. “It’s an opportunity to let them know we have really great students who are very motivated,” Raghavan observes. “And when they engage with our students on projects — either at centers or in the senior design projects they work with — it helps them understand the quality of students. And when we have interns go out they represent the students we have here, and our hopes in their future hiring.”

Helping Them Grow

Another one of the keys to UCF’s success in this area, says Raghavan, involves helping the students become proficient in communicating with these companies. “They come in and definitely have no expectations of having all these qualities; our job is to help them grow,” she says. “Curriculum helps; the foundation addresses all engineering topics, but faculty takes a good amount of time connecting what they are teaching with applied work. And because we’re surrounded by these companies, we are able to connect with them and have them come out to UCF with student organizations — which they do a lot — or graduate seminars or career development seminars where they come in as invited guests.”

Raghavan adds that UCF’s success also comes from the fact that they have so many students who are interested in aerospace and related fields. “Our enrollment is probably the largest number of undergraduate students in the state, and they’re usually highly passionate about their areas of research and are working to earn jobs,” she notes. “Along the way they have internships made possible by our relationships with industry, and by our location.”

“What I like is our first-hand access to these students,” adds Dees. “We do things we see value in, we get good research outcomes, but it’s just that access to talent. As a person who hires people, I really love that six-month or longer prolonged interaction to see if there’s a fit.”