Things You Won't Learn In School

By: Fiona Majeau

This summer, I was lucky enough to spend 10 weeks interning in Rebound’s Denver office, soaking up as much wisdom as I could.  As a tree-hugging, Mechanical Engineering Masters student looking for a challenging internship, everything about Rebound seemed to fit.   I was drawn in by their focus on environmental impact, the innovative thermodynamic problem they were solving, and a company structure (read: startup) that entrusts interns with real projects.  As anticipated, the experience checked all of these boxes.  However, as I look back on my summer, it is the experiences I had not anticipated that feel most valuable, all of which I would have never been exposed to in school.  I have attempted to package these lessons in four, bite-sized takeaways for quick and easy digestion. 

Jack of all trades.  After working at Rebound for a few weeks, it started to make sense why every job title in the startup world is “project engineer.” As it turns out, it’s hard to design and build something from the ground up and make it work.  There is unavoidable overlap of just about every engineering field.  At Rebound, mechanical meets electrical meets chemical.  Theory meets modeling meets manufacturing.   Troubleshooting any problem requires a base knowledge of all of the layers. 

It wouldn’t matter if I understood every detail of the heat transfer theory behind my model if I didn’t know to be aware of temperature constraints when ordering sensors for the test set-up.  My ability to analyze thermodynamic cycles would have been irrelevant without knowing that I had a lot to learn about real-life condenser and pump limitations before any cycle could be realized in the lab.  As I head back for one more year of school, I plan to keep reminding myself that there is added value in every topic and there is no way of knowing when it will come in handy.

 Learn by doing.  Though this cliché makes me cringe, I will reluctantly admit that it has earned its place on this list of takeaways.  Despite having taken several electrical engineering courses over the past few years, it took being thrust into the world of control boxes, temperature sensors, and 240V outlets to feel like I might now know something about electronics. 

As a mechanical engineer, I take comfort in the fact that significant mistakes are often preceded by some visual or auditory clue, for example a very loud noise, copious amounts of spilling water, or a falling clamp.  Electrical issues are not so revealing, requiring a more theoretical understanding of the topic to ensure safety.  My instincts have therefore always been to read more textbooks chapters instead of jumping in to play with outlets.  Though caution is good, no amount of studying would have made me feel as confident as I wanted.  Instead, I just had to get my hands on some wires and ask Josh a lot of questions. 

It turns out the proudest moment of my summer was attaching my computer to the control box on the test set-up and watching 15 new ambient temperature readings appear every 5 seconds on my screen. Though an array of ambient temperatures hardly seems like something to write home about, it meant the control box circuit I designed, temperature sensor chain I had soldered, and Arduino and Python code I had written did what it was supposed to do.  Number of mistakes made? A lot.  Number of skills learned?  A lot.  Number of textbooks consulted? 0. 

When to stop.   Though upper level college courses strive to give you real project management experience, one would be hard pressed to find a class project that does not come along with a rubric-laden outline of scope and expectations. While Luke provided excellent guidance throughout my summer project at Rebound, the inherent void of predetermined structure was a significant departure from my classroom work. There was no clear line of when to stop: when to stop modeling, when to stop searching online for a pre-manufactured item, when to stop planning how to manufacture something in the lab. 

My heart has a soft spot for both modeling and planning, both of which have their place.  However, Luke taught me to be more aware of those tendencies and to quell them when necessary.  After spending a good portion of one day researching manufactured finned tubes and trying to model their heat transfer behavior within our system, he suggested that maybe I should just make a prototype and run some simple tests before investing too much time into the idea.  I learned the importance of knowing when to perfect versus when to transition in order to keep the project moving forward in the right direction.

Startup stigma.  Having lived in the Bay Area for the past five years, I feel minimal guilt making a broad generalization about startup culture.  When you ask someone where they work, an all too common answer is “Oh, a little startup in the city.”  Their coffee mug is an extension of their hand and the bags under their eyes are hard to ignore.  Their pride too often favors the pain and not the project.  Yet it is a culture that makes you believe you can only be passionate about your work if you are on your deathbed, living at the office.  At Rebound, I was exposed to an alternative I did not know existed: being truly passionate and innovative in the work place while still maintaining relationships, pursuing outside interests, and getting some sleep. 

I came to Rebound to learn about thermodynamics, to experience a startup environment, and to make a contribution.  Though I believe I achieved all three of these goals, it is seeing the example of a balanced life that has left me feeling wiser.  I am trying to have more variety in my curiosity, more respect for my non-intellectual ambitions, and more patience about making an impact.