The Happiest Internship on Earth
Growing up in a home where her dad invented things and her
mom was a racecar driver, it’s no surprise that Heather Davis, a first
generation college student, chose to pursue a mechanical engineering
degree at Northern Arizona University. The real surprise is that prior to her
graduation date, she's already created an animated robot for Disneyland—from
start to finish—and has a job offer to continue doing so.
Creating Albert the robot
Summer 2011 was a big summer for Davis. She landed a prized
spot as a paid intern with Garner Holt Productions, the world's largest manufacturer of
animatronics and animatronic figures, such as the ones you would see on rides
at Disneyland or other theme parks. There she was tasked with making a robotic
monkey named Albert from start to finish.
"I got to do everything with the project," Davis
said. "Since I was an intern, I didn’t have to stay in one spot. I got to
do my fiberglass, I got to machine mount parts and put it together, and then
when it didn’t work, I also had to go back and fix it with CAD drawings (computer-aided design)."
After Albert was complete with paint and fur, the robot will
be shipped to Hong Kong to be displayed on a ride in Hong Kong Disneyland.
"There are scenes on the rides, and my scene is a ninja
trying to cut off a monkey’s head, and he’s hiding in a canon," Davis
said. "So he sticks his head out and looks around, and moves his head then
goes back inside and hides."
The internship provided hands-on robotics experience, which
is perfect because working in robotics is her ideal line of work. And for Davis
it might become a long-term reality sooner than later.
"The door is open (to work for Garner Holt after
graduation). If I get to come back—that’d be awesome," she said.
Her time at NAU
On campus, Davis is the President of the Ambassadors for the
College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences, as well as a member
of Gamma Beta Phi National Honors Society and the Automotive Society of
Mechanical Engineers (ASME). As it's her senior year, the majority of her time
is spent dedicated to her studies, specifically her capstone class project.
"The first semester is when you do your fundraising,
pick your client, develop your proposal, and perform your design work," Davis
said. "Then the second semester, if you receive funding, you build."
Capstone projects for mechanical engineering last for one year, and are completed with a team of students. Davis‘s team project is to build a wheelchair for infants with spina bifida, a developmental congenital disorder. So far they have received most of the funding they need, and will present their final product at the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium this spring.
As if she wasn't busy enough, Davis holds a student-wage position on campus as well. For nearly three years, she has worked in Undergraduate Admissions as the Student Assistant Lead, and will be promoted to Leadership Team lead this fall. She works 15 hours per week and says she loves the flexibility of the job.
"They understand that I am a student and my schedule changes last minute," Davis said. "They work around it, and I get to be my own person."
A team-focused engineering program
Davis initially chose Northern Arizona University for its engineering program. She says her three and a half years spent at the university, and specifically in the engineering department, has set her up exceptionally for the ever-changing profession.
"The engineering program I know is growing, and it’s one of the best in the country now," she explained. "We have a lot of hands-on learning. Something companies love about NAU compared to other schools is the team-learning approach. Everything is done as a group—and that’s where engineering is moving."
And, Davis says, the accessibility of the engineering faculty is another standout feature of the department. “We have mainly doctorate professors. Dr. Nelson and Dr. Becker are my favorite—they are always available and ready to help out,” she said.
With job offers before she's even graduated in her desired field of robotics and eventual plans to undergo an advanced education, Davis undoubtedly has a rich career ahead of her. But first, she's going to have a little fun: She is signed up for Semester at Sea for two months this summer when she will travel to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Croatia, Turkey, and Greece.