Training Ground

Hands-on learning has long been a priority for the UAB School of Engineering, but for one group of 2017 undergraduates, education and experience are just two parts of a bigger picture.

This year, the School of Engineering is partnering for the first time with the Academic Small Business Alliance (ASBA) to pair engineering interns with local diverse business enterprises (DBEs). These enterprises include a wide variety of small businesses—from non-profits to entrepreneurial start-ups—and those settings add an element of community involvement that might not always exist in a traditional internship.

“There are several things I find fascinating about this program,” says Desland Robinson, ASBA internship coordinator and director of Career Services for the School of Engineering. “It’s a program that allows UAB to give back to the community by providing great talent to small businesses that might not have a lot of resources, whether financial or in terms of manpower. At the same time, it provides our students with a different type of experience.”

Those experiences, Robinson says, may include more responsibility in some instances, but more often the difference is in the amount of freedom the student has within their internship roles. “When our students intern with some of the larger corporations, they often are assigned to roles that require specific tasks,” she says. “In these DBE internships, an intern may perform similar tasks, but he or she might be interacting with clients or handling other aspects of the business at the same time. The result, we hope, is a wider range of experiences for our students.”

The ASBA program started in 2015 by placing students from the Collat School of Business with local companies. This year the program placed 26 students with 22 different DBEs, with eight of those students coming from the School of Engineering and one from the School of Public Health. Four of the school’s undergraduate departments are represented in this year’s inaugural group of ASBA engineering interns, with three civil engineers, two each from biomedical and electrical engineering, and one from mechanical engineering.

“Our goal was to place five students this first year, and we placed eight,” says Robinson. “We are very fortunate at UAB to be located in a city that not only has a lot of employment opportunities for engineers but has opportunities in a wide range of disciplines.”

Hitting the Ground Running

While responsibilities vary widely from one company to another, one thing nearly every intern has in common is that their engineering input was both needed and welcomed from the outset. “I am working on the design of a restaurant for a local company,” says Ebisidor Agberebi, a civil engineering student working for Studio 2H Design. “The tasks I perform include studying the site, designing the building to meet the client’s and the states building codes, and orienting the building to efficiently maximize its existing topography, thus saving cost where possible. I constantly apply engineering communication, problem solving and design skills acquired in class towards my assigned task as appropriate, while constantly learning new architectural skills that synchronizes perfectly while addressing the Feng shui of the structure.”

Hitting the Ground Running

Another civil engineering student, Demetrius Frinkley, found a position with Dynamic Civil Solutions, a local start-up that is run by UAB alumnus Bolaji Kukoyi. “Like many students, I’m still figuring out what path I want to take within my field of study,” says Frinkley. “This internship gives me a great opportunity to experience engineering hands-on. I am working on surverying crews, so I’ll have a leg up by having first-hand knowledge of surveying before I take the class next semester.”

GASPing for Ideas

Although each DBE is unique, one participant in the ASBA program is truly distinctive. The Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (G.A.S.P.) is the only non-profit participating in the program. This semester, the group is employing two ASBA interns, biomedical engineering student Samuel Unwana and mechanical engineering student Dania Ashour.

“My internship is the perfect blend of engineering, entrepreneurship, and nonprofit work,” says Ashour, who counts advocacy and non-profit work as two of her passions. Currently, she is working on creating G.A.S.P.’s first air monitor. “I am learning how to apply engineering concepts to real-world situations. This is crucial for my future goals, because I hope to one day start my own non-profit and nurture it until it becomes an international organization. Working here allowed me to see the inner workings of a non-profit, and to observe how it operates on a day-to-day basis.”

Experiences like that, Robinson says, show the real value of the ASBA program. “These internships add a valuable option for a specific type of student,” Robinson says. “Depending on what a student’s career goals are, this might not be the right fit. That’s why we work very hard to match an intern’s goals, skills and personality to the needs of employers. As with any job, finding the right match is key to a successful experience.”