Libby Thomas

Libby Thomas

How many college seniors land a job interview before they even submit an application? Libby Thomas has, and she has a University of Colorado Boulder aerospace class to thank for it.

It’s all because of Thomas’s work in Senior Design, a year-long required course where teams of students solve a real-world engineering problem being faced by an outside business or research lab. Thomas’s team worked with Aurora Flight Sciences (AFS) to design a prototype electromagnetic wing deicing system for the company’s Orion unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Without her realizing it, the project became a nine-month-long job interview and has led to her first job as an aerospace engineer.

“Midway through the year they collected our resumes via e-mail, and they reached out to me a month later to see what kind of position I would be interested in. I hadn’t applied online nor was I even aware of which positions were open at the time,” said Thomas.

The Right Stuff

What made Thomas appealing? As the project manager for her team, she was the main point of contact with AFS, giving CEO John Langford the chance to see her work up close.

“In addition to seeking great engineers, we are looking for leadership skills. That’s probably the hardest thing to find when recruiting. We got to watch Libby in action throughout the project, and we were impressed with what we saw,” said Langford.

As project manager, Thomas was responsible for delegating tasks to group members, planning meetings and schedules, and making executive decisions on things like design and cut-off dates. It’s not an easy job, according to their senior design professor, Joe Tanner, who retired in May.

“She worked harder and put in more hours than anyone. They had a massive amount of work to complete in two semesters. The team would not have been successful without her excellent leadership. I was very happy when AFS offered her a job,” said Tanner.

Conquering Obstacles

The Team Testing the Deicer in a Walk In Freezer

To test the wing deicer, the team did their experiments inside a walk-in freezer.

The team didn’t just need to design a deicing system – they also needed a way to test it in a controlled environment where they could conduct detailed measurements. That meant building a mockup of a plane wing, freezing just the right amount of water onto it, and replicating the cold temperatures and high winds of flight. All of that took extra time and effort.

“When making a schedule, you have to expect obstacles and create a margin for them,” said Thomas. “Shipping time on parts always seemed to take twice as long as it should have, and we also had to design a completely new test setup for better data collection. I met with our systems engineer, and we decided a divide-and-conquer method was best to get us back on schedule. This was a huge time sacrifice for all team members, but the effort showed and sure enough, paid off.”

That effort was aided by how well the students worked together. There were nine students on the team, and they all stepped up to complete the project.

“I’m extremely fortunate to have worked with such a great team with a phenomenal team dynamic and outstanding work ethic,” said Thomas.

The team finished the deicer and completed successful testing. As a prototype, it will go through several more rounds of design and testing if AFS decides to integrate it into the Orion UAV. Of course, beyond the project, they now also have Thomas.

Hiring the Best and Brightest

The prospect of recruiting employees is a major draw for companies to the senior design program. While students are working on their project, the sponsor is sizing up potential new hires. After watching Thomas work and manage challenges, Langford knew they wanted her even though they weren’t exactly sure what her job responsibilities would be.

“Honestly, we have no idea,” said Langford. “We hire on a philosophy of hiring the best talent we can find, and then matching them to jobs as the needs arise. We find that often when we offer someone a specific position, it has already changed by the time they start. The most valuable people are the ones who are flexible and can do a variety of jobs.”

The uncertainty about what a new hire will be doing is not unheard of in senior design. As graduation approaches, students are applying for jobs all over, and if the project sponsor sees talent, they know a competitor will as well. Hiring a student early ensures they won’t accept a position elsewhere. Although Thomas’s day-to-day duties are still being worked out, Langford said they won’t have any trouble finding a place for her.

“Aurora has six full-scale airplane development programs under way at the moment, which is really unprecedented for us. We have lots of need for talent,” he said. “The one thing I can promise is that she won’t be bored.”