An eye-opening experience

For years, educators and employers have been fervently promoting the importance of gaining experience through internships and co-ops as part of a well-rounded education. Mechanical engineering senior Robert Hanson has learned first hand from two internships how valuable experiential learning really is. Although each was a diverse experience, both were equally influential to his future.

Hanson completed his first internship at Intromac, a Spanish engineering firm, during his sophomore year while he was studying abroad in Spain. Although he was at an engineering firm, the position focused more on communication, allowing him to utilize his second major, Spanish.

To gain engineering experience, Hanson has spent his summer working at the well-known packaged-foods company ConAgra Foods. The internship has given him a good look at the engineering industry and provided valuable perspective he would not have gained without the internship.

Living just a few blocks from the organization’s Menomonie, Wisconsin, location, a typical day begins with a short walk to the plant. Around 6 a.m., he meets with the night shift manager to discuss one of his projects—the playbook.

The playbook is a manual that describes how to put together the factory’s heat exchanger, which is used for killing bacteria and cooling Snack Pack pudding cups. Getting to know every detail of the machine and understanding the engineering behind it, Hanson is documenting the step-by-step construction process.

“We have to make it foolproof,” he explains. “The idea is that someone who has never worked with the heat exchanger can pick up this book and know exactly how to take the machine apart and put it back together.”

Later in the day, Hanson moves to the cocoa side of the factory, where ConAgra packages Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix. Here he is doing statistical analyses to determine whether or not the company should buy a new feeding machine it is testing. Used for measuring more accurate weights of cocoa powder being put in packets, the machine has the potential of saving the company money by reducing the loss of product.

Hanson says the project has opened his eyes to what it’s like to work under a constant deadline, trying to keep up with the enormous amounts of data the plant produces in a day.

“Sometimes, the pressure can get a bit overwhelming. At the same time, it always makes me feel alive and excited, because I am working on something that will make a difference at ConAgra,” he adds.

Additionally, Hanson says he has met some fantastic engineers who have supported him throughout the internship, and he has had experiences he will never forget. One of these includes getting to talk with one of the vice presidents of the company, who was touring the plant for updates.

“Each of the employees at the plant’s stations had the chance to present their work to the plant managers and VP, but when they got to our station he specifically asked what I was working on,” Hanson explains. “I only talked for about 30 to 40 seconds, but I was proud to share my work with people so high up in the company.”

As the summer internship comes to an end, Hanson finds himself wishing he had more time at ConAgra. Although he learned something new everyday, he felt it took him a while to get a handle on navigating the plant and getting comfortable with his position.

Hanson will be graduating in May 2014, giving him an extra summer for an internship, but he is thinking about taking on a co-op instead, noting that although it will push back his graduation date, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“No matter what your major, there’s nothing better for your education than experience,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed my time at ConAgra. It has been a real eye-opener for me, but I am excited to find opportunities elsewhere and test the waters a bit.”

Following graduation, Hanson hopes to pursue an engineering career in a Spanish-speaking country—something that combines his interests, applies his knowledge and skills, and also helps him continue to grow.