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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Engineering Students, A Reality Test
A lot has changed since
Lambertville-based Protocol Electronics, graduated from the College
of New Jersey (then Trenton State) in 1979 with a degree in engineering.
"It truly is co-ed now," he says of the school’s engineering
department. This change is nothing but positive, he says. "It’s
very competitive. Sometimes the girls, or I should say, the ladies,
do better than the boys." Another positive change is the number
of black and Latino engineering students.
The engineering curriculum is different too. There is so much to teach,
says Ross, that students come out with little knowledge of or experience
in the practical side of engineering, of things like troubleshooting,
or even soldering.
What has remained the same is that engineering is one tough major.
"You rarely see an engineer as valedictorian," says Ross.
"It’s just too hard." Another constant is that engineers are
heading for jobs in an unforgiving industry, where there are no Bs
or Cs — only As or Fs. Or as Ross says, "You either succeed
or you don’t. There are no gray areas."
To help students prepare for this world, Ross volunteered to advise
and work with a group of seniors on a yearly project, the creation
of a solar boat to be raced against solar boats from colleges across
the country at an annual event held in Buffalo in June. He and his
students talk about their project on Thursday, November 14, at 6 p.m.
at the general meeting of the IEEE Princeton Central Jersey Section
at the Friend Center Auditorium at Princeton University. Also presenting
at this meeting are students from Rutgers who are building a battlebot
and Princeton University students discussing a number of projects.
For more information call 609-584-8424.
Ross is the industrial advisor to the five-year-old TCNJ solar boat
project, which was begun by Norman Asper, who still serves as faculty
advisor. Ross says he is something of a "phantom." He is not
a faculty member or an adjunct, yet he works with students 20 hours
a week, every week. He also hopes he is a prototype.
After 25 years as a successful engineer and owner of an engineering
design and consulting firm — and a proud TCNJ alumnus — he
says he had a choice. "I could write a check," he says, "or
I could get involved with the students." He chose the latter,
and in addition to working on the solar boat project also works with
students on a project aiming to develop a cutting-edge hearing aid.
The solar boat project has special appeal for Ross because he is a
self-confessed boating addict and owner of a 31-foot, twin engine
boat he describes as "a water rocket." His involvement is
not completely altruistic, he says, explaining that it offers him
an up close look at possible future employees "just as they are
coming out of the egg."
Ross, a high-energy, high-enthusiasm entrepreneur, has run Protocol,
which has nine employees, since 1983, first out of his home and then
from the Laceworks in Lambertville.
His engineering accomplishments include the development of the Airfone,
used by airplane passengers to communicate with people on the ground;
the development of wireless pay phones and vehicle tracking systems
in South Africa; work on the computer system for experimental helicopters;
the design of video games; and an ongoing joint venture involving
the creation of a database accelerator, which will run 10,000 times
faster than current PC-based databases. His company currently is working
on a medical dictation system, which uses the Internet to channel
transcription work to qualified cottage workers, to track their progress,
to paginate the finished product, and to return it to the doctor who
Ross, who grew up in Princeton, where he was one of the first youngsters
to attend the Riverside school, always knew what he wanted to do.
His father, Vincent, was a stationary engineer at the university’s
cooling plant. As a boy, Ross enjoyed visiting his father and was
fascinated by workings of the big cooling machines. He also spent
time with his grandmother, Elizabeth Ross, as she typed theses for
students, who were always trooping in and out with their work. Familiarity
with the university campus and its students and with the machines
at his father’s plant and elsewhere on campus put Ross on an academic,
and more specifically, an engineering course.
He enjoys the irony of attending TCNJ on a Princeton scholarship,
which he received as the child of a university staff member, and what’s
more, he enjoys the fact that, according to his research, it is now
more difficult to get into TCNJ, perennially ranked one of the top
public colleges in the country, than it is to get into its Ivy neighbor.
Ross enjoyed his years at TCNJ so much that he spent an extra four
years studying, taking all the math and physics courses he could find.
"I could have graduated in 1975," he says. Instead he took
a job and went right on studying.
While he gains from his involvement with TCNJ students and their solar
boat project, the students are big winners too. Few things are as
hard as building from scratch, he says. The process gives students
— who are mechanical and electrical engineering majors as well
as computer science and physics majors — a tremendous amount of
work on theoreticals. But that is just the beginning. "How do
you apply that and build something?" is the big question, Ross
points out. "This is about taking what you know and building something
It is also very much about meeting a deadline. "It gives them
some sense of reality," says Ross. "It’s very stressful, and
some don’t like it. It’s their first real taste of the stress they
will face in industry." When students take most courses, he says,
they can figure out how hard they want to work, deciding to cruise
and shoot for a C, do the minimum and get a D, or go all out for an
A. In the engineering industry, he points out, there is no such choice.
"It has to work," he says, "there is no back up. You can’t
give astronauts parachutes."
The solar boat TCNJ is building will compete in a number of tasks,
including a sprint, where contestants see how far their craft will
go in two hours, and a slalom, which tests maneuverability. Last year
the team built their boat from scratch. "We even built the trailer,"
says Ross. While the team didn’t finish on top, its water-cooled power
control system received the IEEE design award. There were only four
students on the solar boat team last year. Ross did some recruiting
over the summer, and the team now has 12 members, and is able to use
substantial parts of last year’s boat. "We should finish in the
top three," says Ross. "Maybe number one."
In any case, Ross is sure of one thing, a real-world lesson he is
teaching the entire solar boat team: "Failure is not an option."
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