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Latest Equipment a Must for Engineering Grad Students

Ron Cowen

A couple of years ago, Matthew Woodward, an engineering grad student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, began building a palm-size robot that could crouch, jump and fly like a vampire bat. The device also had to be agile enough to slip through narrow passageways and navigate such hazardous environments as the inside of a nuclear reactor, a toxic waste site or a collapsed mine.

To assure that the robot would be lightweight but durable, Woodward needed to use a state-of-the-art 3D printer to fabricate precision components. Churning out tiny parts in a few hours would have been impossible by conventional computer-controlled techniques; the 3D printer enabled Woodward to build much of the biologically inspired robot as a single block of material rather than having to bolt on additional pieces.

Conveniently, he found most of the high-tech equipment he needed in the nanorobotics lab just a few doors from his office.

Robotics is just one of the many mushrooming or emerging engineering fields that absolutely require engineering students to be familiar with cutting-edge technology. Universities are scrambling to make sure the necessary training is available through a variety of partnerships with companies, government laboratories or other schools -- or by making sizable investments in their own research facilities.

Prospective students need to know that working with the best possible equipment can both shorten the time to a degree and jump-start a career, says Andrew Barry, 26, who is working on his doctorate in robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'It can be the difference between a person making a discovery and the person who wishes [he] had."

Many engineering schools now incorporate formal experiential learning into the graduate school experience. Internships and co-op programs, which typically alternate a term of work with a term of academic instruction, also give future engineers a chance to impress companies with their work and to build networks.

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The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta boasts a robust co-op and internship program. Participating master's candidates generally complete two four-month co-ops during their second year, while doctoral candidates tend to spread theirs over a two- to four-year period.

Students earn an average of $32 an hour while working full-time at companies like Google, Intel, GE, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook and Texas Instruments. In addition to gaining hands-on experience with the latest equipment, many find that the co-ops lead to jobs after graduation, says Patricia Bazrod, director of the co-op program.

Uncle Sam is clearly a serious and well-endowed research partner, and the government offers myriad opportunities for future engineers to build their know-how. At the University of California--Berkeley, engineering students and professors routinely take advantage of precision instruments made available to them at the nearby Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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Rehan Kapadia, 27, a recent graduate who will join the faculty of the University of Southern California this summer, used the lab's X-ray diffractometers and scanning electron microscopes. "The tools at LBL were state-of-the-art and also easily accessible," he says.

How can a would-be grad student assess whether an engineering school has what he or she will need? "Try to get some research experience as an undergraduate" at your college, advises Siddharth Gaba, 30, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor who is building high-density memory storage devices for next-generation computers. That way, you'll not only become familiar with the tools you're going to need, but can also get a taste of the research-intensive realities of graduate school.

You can also talk to graduate students and professors engaged in active research at your undergraduate institution about the kind of equipment they use, says Doug Bowman, director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "It helps you establish a baseline: How does this school compare to the school I'm attending now?"

[Learn what it takes to get into a top online engineering master's program.]

Ask faculty whose laboratory you may want to join about their future research projects, what the goals and timetables are, and what equipment will be needed.

That strategy worked well for Katherine Knisely, 29, a mechanical engineering grad student at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor eager to combine her interest in physics and sound.

After entering the program, she realized that Michigan's "brand new equipment across the board" would allow her to build an advanced wireless version of a cochlear implant -- a device that electrically stimulates the auditory nerve for people who cannot hear because of damage to sensitive cells in the inner ear.

As you consider different schools, look up research articles in your area of study published by researchers at laboratories that pique your interest, suggests James Garrett, dean of Carnegie Mellon's engineering school. The articles will reveal the type of equipment used by scientists at the school and if they collaborate with other labs.

Finally, have a good talk with the grad students who already work where you're thinking of going.

Bowman advises finding out if there are restrictions placed on who gets access to sophisticated tools, whether there is remote access, and if breakdowns happen frequently. No one is more qualified to answer such questions than the researchers currently competing for time in the operator's seat, he says. "They're the ones living it."

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.