Q&A: ‘Future industry leader’ discusses the importance of a year in industry
Gap year student Ross Gardiner was acclaimed as a potential engineering high flier when he won the IET Innovation Prize at the recent EDT Future Industry Leader Awards. E&T asked him about the time he spent working with Leonardo, a key player in the aerospace, defence and security sectors.
Ross was awarded the IET Innovation Award, given for the project judged to be the most innovative out of all the projects carried out by students undertaking The Year in Industry, a well known work-placement programme run by charity the Engineering Development Trust.
The Future Industry Leaders Awards were held at IET London: Savoy Place last month and Ross won his award after an assessment of nine finalists by expert judges following submission of project reports, presentations, and intensive questioning.
E&T asked Ross about his experience on the Year in Industry programme, his award winning project and why he thinks it's important for engineering students to gain work experience either before, or during, university.
Why did you choose a working gap year?
I could see that taking a working gap year would equip me for my degree and for life beyond education. By experiencing a commercial environment, I could see whether this was a future I could aspire to, while seeing different aspects of engineering and technology being used in a practical context would help me to make decisions on areas to pursue in my degree.
Also, the fact of having spent a year developing skills and proving myself in commercial settings would greatly enhance my CV for future employers.
Tell us about your work– what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
My project involved the development of software for simulating a specialised radar-imaging mode called synthetic aperture radar. By performing simulated flight trials on digital representations of the Earth, the programme is able to produce images that bear a striking resemblance to those collected on actual flight trials.
Working closely with engineers, in conjunction with attending a five-day radar course, I developed the skills to engage in technical and in-depth discussions about radar. A specific problem that I had to tackle was the acquisition of high-quality data to allow me to overcome the issues of low-resolution modelling, which gave insufficient detail and therefore unrealistic simulations. Through my own initiative I discovered a whole new data set from a previously untapped source, which overcame this problem. To integrate the data into my model I had to learn complex data-fusion and software-modelling techniques.
The software can now produce realistic SAR images on demand without the need for flight trials, saving significant costs on flight trials and at least 560kg of carbon dioxide per flying hour for Leonardo’s smallest radar.
Additionally, engineers can now use the software to investigate how factors such as thermal background noise or aircraft vibration affect the quality of the image.
What were your gap year highlights?
My greatest technical achievement within Leonardo was the generation of my very first simulated SAR image. This signified the end of a few particularly challenging weeks where I made many mistakes. To make the simulation possible, I had to consult experts within the company to enhance my understanding of the radar mode.
Finally, towards the end of my placement I got real satisfaction from observing the company taking measures to continue to develop my work even after my departure from the business.
What surprised you the most during your year in industry?
At first I was surprised by the complexity of the work and found it to be quite intimidating. But after appropriate training, I found that I was capable of completing the project to specification.
I also found the transition from school to a professional environment to be challenging at first. The working world is very different to full-time education and in the first month or so of my placement I found myself having to adapt to suit it better.
Do you feel you gained anything above and beyond technical skills?
Aside from technical skills, I learned a great deal about professional conduct. I learned how to form and maintain working relationships, how present my work to an audience and how the internal hierarchy of a company operates.
I also learned to become tenacious when faced with extremely challenging circumstances as well as recognising my own limits and seeking help and advice when appropriate. My placement has given me a level of independence and maturity, which I couldn’t have learned in the classroom.
What will be most useful to take with you into your degree now?
I have a good understanding of radar and systems engineering, which is extremely relevant on my degree course. Additionally, I am fluent in the C# programming language. This makes the computer science elements of my studies much less challenging since I have plenty of programming experience.
During my placement I frequently had to carry out independent research on various topics. This initiative is great to get before starting university.
I also have industry experience, which allows me to identify which parts of my studies are relevant in the real world.
Has the year in industry given you any firm ideas about your future career direction?
My project has really shown me the power of simulation software in a commercial environment and I can see myself continuing to write software in the future.
Even now, during spare time, I write small pieces of code for personal projects and such like. I hope that when I graduate, I will be able to continue to use my skills to work on engaging and innovative projects in the technology sector.
What would you recommend that others should look for in a work placement either before or during a university degree?
Applying for a work placement is a two-way process and as well as the employer sifting applicants, applicants should also consider such things as if the placement offers further training, if the placement company show an interest in your personal development and whether your project work be solo or if you’ll have the opportunity to work as part of a team from which you can learn.
The IET is currently championing its ‘Engineering work experience for all’ campaign - why do you think it’s important for students to gain real-world engineering experience?
Students of all ages need to gain real-world industrial experience as it is impossible to understand the challenge and the satisfaction of applying engineering expertise to a commercially important project without having experienced it.
It is unreasonable to expect students to make career defining subject choices without providing them with information about, and experience of, alternative career options.