Program Alumni Mentor Others While Forming Lasting Friendships

The University of Virginia School of Engineering enjoys the distinction of partnering with Rolls-Royce International Ltd. as one of three university technology centers in North America. Led by Elizabeth J. Opila, professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, faculty and students conduct research in advanced materials systems relevant to Rolls-Royce operations.

The partnership offers undergraduates a unique opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and problem-solving skills during a 10-week internship program at the Rolls-Royce manufacturing hub in Derby, England, followed by a one-week immersion in the company’s U.S. headquarters in Indianapolis. Students are selected during the fall of their third year; internships are completed the next summer.

Emily Davenport and David Xiao, now fourth-year undergraduates in mechanical and aerospace engineering, worked together on a software modernization project for Rolls-Royce engineers responsible for aircraft engine compressor blade design and analysis. The software automates the design of multi-layered parts and surfaces and simulates how the compressor will function. This helps Rolls-Royce engineers optimize the compressor’s performance and durability more quickly than the old software.

The team performed finite element analysis, a computerized method of predicting how the smallest elements of the compressor will react to physical forces such as vibration, heat and air flow. The new software speeds up background processing to give engineers more information from the data; the engineers can change a few design parameters and get the final results much faster, Davenport explained.

Xiao focused on python coding while Davenport worked on the end-user interface. The team completed two modules during their internship, overcoming a complex challenge of verifying and validating the output data with the old software. Each module involved several multi-variable processes and plug-ins and their interdependencies.

Martin Keuchkerian, now a fourth-year aerospace engineering major with an astronomy minor, worked as a development engineering intern at Aero Gearbox International, a joint venture between Rolls-Royce and Safran, a French multinational supplier of systems and equipment in the aerospace and defense markets. Keuchkerian worked with an engineer to create a document that conveyed more than 1,000 requirements for a jet engine gearbox in development.

Keuchkerian assessed whether a given requirement was feasible and sufficiently specific. He also resolved contradictory requirements and worked with technical writers and customers to make the requirements easy to understand. “This task was extremely challenging because I had to learn how the entire system worked,” Keuchkerian said. This systems knowledge paid off when halfway through the internship, Keuchkerian helped speed adoption of a new software system to manage the dynamic content of requirements documents. “I had to learn the requirement’s purpose, and how the company can prove its engineering solution meets customer needs.”

All three students gained technical and workplace skills through the internship. “Mechanical engineering is a very broad discipline,” Davenport said. “Reflecting on our teamwork with the Rolls-Royce engineers, I’m struck by how many assumptions we share, about what is known, what is unknown, and how things work. There’s still so much we need to discover and better understand.”

Xiao brought his experience back to UVA as a facilitator in his senior design class, working with senior design advisor Gavin Garner, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Learning group dynamics was one of the most valuable parts of the experience,” he said. Xiao is incorporating conflict management into his senior design class and putting his group-based stress reduction skills into practice. “If team members mesh well, ideas will come, and technical solutions will emerge.”

Keuchkerian likewise applies what he learned to his capstone design class led by Christopher P. Goyne, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Aerospace Research Center at UVA. Keuchkerian is one of three program managers for the Cecil cubesat that UVA hopes to launch in 2021-2022. Keuchkerian works very closely with the project proposal and requirements document that the cubesat team will have to meet in the future. His experience at Aero Gearbox helps the team move along faster with fewer avoidable mistakes. “My internship gave me skills to be a better leader, to encourage teamwork and improve productivity. My overall experience at Rolls-Royce has made me a better leader and manager, which is what I hope to transition into later in my career.”

Davenport and Xiao credit alumni Nate Ashburn and Will Clark for sparking their interest in the Rolls-Royce internship. Ashburn and Clark had completed their internships the previous year, also working on the software modernization program. Ashburn graduated in 2019 with a dual degree in mechanical engineering and engineering science, with a concentration in materials science. Both now work for Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis.

“One of the best parts of the internship was getting to know the previous participants,” Ashburn said. “I have a really close relationship with a lot of the people who went to Derby in previous years and tried my best to help out the students in the succeeding year. It is a unique opportunity to mentor others while forming lasting friendships.”

“The Rolls-Royce international internship program is a great example of experiential learning in a cross-cultural context that allows students to apply what they’ve learned to solve real business problems,” said Charles P. “Chip” Blankenship, professor of practice in materials science and engineering. Following the path taken by Ashburn and Clark, Xiao will join Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis in July 2020. Davenport and Keuchkerian have accepted offers to join GE Aviation.

The timing of the internship not only eases the transition from school to work, but also helps students apply the knowledge they’ve learned in the engineering curriculum in real-world projects. Recalling the Rolls-Royce Heritage Center at the Derby facility, Xiao said it “re-lit the child-like sense of exploration and discovery” and helped him see how following engineering principles and methods makes a tangible impact on people’s lives.