Achieving Professional Goals Through a Virtual Internship in Engineering

Max Hedman, a computer engineering major at the University of Arkansas participated in USAC’s Global Perspectives Virtual Internship in Fall 2020. Hear how Max used this opportunity conducting research with a professor in Lüneburg, Germany to establish himself in his field of choice, network with professionals, and reach some pretty exciting career goals — all before graduation.

Why did you choose to participate in a virtual internship?

I was originally planning to study abroad out of country in order to strengthen my language skills. However, my plan was interrupted by COVID. I heard about USAC through my school’s study abroad office and I thought that taking a virtual internship would be a great way to participate in another culture while still improving my engineering skills.

How does a virtual internship fit into your academic and professional goals? 

Academically, I was able to branch out to a different field of engineering that I had never worked with before, but had always interested me. The skills that I learned have already helped me out in my classes, and it gave me taste of what working in a professional setting is like.

What organization did you intern with and what is their primary function as a company?

I did not intern with an organization so much as with a professor. The purpose of the internship was more of a research internship with the end goal of generating novel ideas worthy of a paper. We performed tests using an advanced control scheme that we built in Matlab Simulink that simulated the pathing of our test robot, the Robotino.

What were your responsibilities? What did an average day look like for you?

First, as controls engineering was a new topic to me, I worked with the professor to learn the basics of control theory and in particular, SMC (Sliding Mode Control) and MPC (Model Predictive Control). My typical day during this phase of the internship would consist of educational zoom meetings and also self teaching of subjects like differential equations and linear algebra, math subjects that I had not taken in class, but would need for the project we would build.

Second, we built the program. The Simulink file that we started with was the results of the some of the professor’s work with his graduate students. This phase consisted of deriving equations which and then implementing them into Matlab Simulink. This was the most difficult phase as we had to root out and search for errors and figure ways to solve them when they became apparent. Most of what we built, we built while in a zoom meeting, so we could both see what was going on. This was a very satisfying part of the internship as many of the bugs we would find would take 10+ hours to solve. This was great as the problem solving feel of the entire thing is one of the reasons I want to be an engineer.

Third, once the program was mostly finished, barring several non-critical bugs, we started to put a lot of work into the paper. The professor and I both wrote different sections and made many edits until the end product was perfect and ready for submission into the conference.

Some of the work you did during your internship was published. Can you tell us more about that project? 

The work that we published was a control scheme for an omnidirectional mobile robot. The control scheme used MPC (model predictive control) in order to generate an optimal trajectory that the robot would attempt to follow by using SMC (sliding mode control) which is a corrective, robust control strategy that compensates for error (both externally caused and natural physical limitations). The result is a low consumption scheme that can compensate for error and work around constraints (which can be implemented in the form of a cost function).

The paper has not been published yet as the conference is not until March, and papers are published in the conference proceedings, but we have submitted the paper and are waiting to hear if it will be accepted. The conference is tough to get into, but I feel we have a very strong subject for the paper, with a good simulation results to back it up.

Did you have to overcome any cultural obstacles during your internship (such as language barriers or different approaches to office culture)?

Due to the one on one nature of my internship, there were not too many cultural issues. The professor that I worked with was incredibly helpful and supportive.

One of my hobbies is languages, I like to learn all sorts of new words and learn their etymology, so it was very cool to learn some (very very little) Italian during the internship. I feel like breaking (even if ever so slightly) a language barrier makes the entire situation much more welcoming and I was glad to be able to expand my horizons to learn more about different cultures.

What are the benefits of a virtual internship?

The best part of a virtual internship is the convenience of it. I have found it far easier to schedule emergency meetings or to work parallelly (keeping in mind we worked on a computer simulation) in a virtual environment. I think this is a smaller point, but having experience working in a virtual environment will be quite important for my field as going into the future a lot of my work will be online, and I won’t always be able to meet clients in person.

What was the hardest part of your internship? How did you learn to overcome or manage this hurdle?

The hardest part of my internship had to be the building and testing of the program, although it was satisfying when we figured it out, many errors were very difficult to track down due to the size of the program. Additionally, because of the nature of simulating with multiple feedback loops, a small error in one spot may cause the program to completely crash or project error somewhere else.

What was your favorite part of your internship?

My favorite part was working with the professor, you can tell that he has a love for the subject and that he has a love for teaching. If I had to give a specific moment though, discovering that we had been using an incorrect constant and finally solving an error that had been in the program from the start was amazing. I remember it well because we solved it on a zoom call where we had a mini celebration afterwards. I remember saying “cross your fingers” before we tested it. Truly an awesome moment.

What is next for your academic career, and what are your professional plans for after graduation?

While I am still taking classes and working towards my major, I plan to take as many internships, study abroad opportunities, and co-ops as I can. I really want to gather a lot of experience so that I can better know what to expect (and do a better job) when I graduate. After graduation, I am hoping to work with a company (maybe even one that took an internship with) until I understand the field better and then I would like to start a cybersecurity consulting firm. I do have to admit though, while these are goals that I would like to work towards, a lot can change by the time I graduate, so I feel like the best plan is to look out for special opportunities and be ready and able to adapt if necessary. As I have been told before, sometimes the best engineers are the ones that can learn to climb the ladder sideways, branch out to different things.

Looking to gain professional experience and stand out to future employers? Learn more about USAC’s Global Perspectives virtual internship program.

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