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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 Jay Ross, president of

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

dictated it.

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

significant."

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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