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UC engineering co-op student innovates at Honda

Even as a toddler, Emma Vail was curious about how things worked.

“When I was younger, I liked building with Legos,” she said. “I grew up taking things apart, building things and doing puzzles. During preschool and kindergarten, I was always in the block area during free time.”

In high school, she joined the robotics club to pursue her interest in electronics.

“In my senior year of high school, I decided I would study mechanical engineering in college. There’s so much you can do with it. It’s one of the broadest engineering fields there is.”

The University of Cincinnati undergraduate still likes figuring out how to make things work better. She finished two co-op rotations for American Honda Motor Co., where she applied her skills to the manufacturing floor and its research and development center.

“I have always known subconsciously that I wanted to go into engineering. I think my parents and others around me knew before I could comprehend what engineering was,” she said. 

Emma Vail holds a helmet while standing next to a Honda on a test track.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science student Emma Vail completed two co-op rotations for Honda Motor Co. Photo/Provided

Pioneering a century of co-op

Honda is just one of many corporate partners for UC’s co-op program, a system UC pioneered in which students divide their year between full-time classroom instruction and full-time employment at a company in their chosen field.

It’s a program that has been duplicated by many universities, but UC still does it better than most anyone. U.S. News & World Report ranks UC as a top five co-op university in its latest rankings.

UC’s colleges have connections with both Fortune 500 companies and newer startups around the country. And students who want an international experience can even work in co-op positions abroad.

“Honda has had a long and successful relationship with the University of Cincinnati, a school we utilize to recruit engineering and business students for our co-op/internship program and entry-level full-time positions,” said Daniela Evans, unit lead for college relations at American Honda.

We see our co-ops as a critical talent pipeline for positions.
Christine Evans | Honda Motor Co.

Honda has been hiring co-ops for more than 30 years. During that time, more than 600 co-op graduates have been hired into full-time positions.

“UC students are a good choice for our co-op positions because the students’ coursework and programs directly align with the knowledge and skills our positions require,” she said.

Evans said Honda provides networking opportunities for co-ops to meet each other and build a career network.

“We see our co-ops as a critical talent pipeline for positions,” she said. “Additionally, co-ops can get real-world, hands-on experience by working on projects that are directly tied to their area of study and give them a sense of what they may be able to do as a full-time associate.”

Honda offers internship and co-op opportunities to students pursuing a variety of majors, from business management to information technology and accounting to marketing.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science mechanical engineering student Emma Vail finished two co-op rotations at Honda.

UC co-op student Emma Vail belongs to Bearcat Motorsports, which builds Formula One cars for competition against other schools. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Hands-on experience

And, of course, there are engineers like Vail, who grew up in an engineering household.

“My dad was a sales engineer who worked on the customer side of projects,” she said. 

From her childhood interest in Legos, she worked with robotics in high school. She also played lots of sports growing up: gymnastics, tee-ball, soccer, lacrosse.

“If I was interested in something new, I would always try to do it and never cared that I may not be the best at it since I'd never done it before,” she said.

And she helped her dad with projects around the house.

“These ranged from building a raised garden to helping to repair the sailboat,” she said.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science mechanical engineering student Emma Vail finished two co-op rotations at Honda.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science student Emma Vail worked two co-op rotations for Honda Motor Co. and is a member of UC's Bearcat Motorsports, which makes Formula One cars. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Vail jumped at the chance join an international automaker and spent her first co-op working at the Honda’s Anna Engine Plant about 100 miles north of UC in Anna, Ohio.

“My first rotation was very hands-on, working in manufacturing engineering and the production line,” she said.

She liked her experience so much that she applied to Honda for her second co-op, this time working at its research and development center in central Ohio. There she got hands-on experience in testing and development, analyzing and reviewing data for braking systems.

“We were studying the traction systems of cars, looking at stopping distances in different conditions like wet or icy surfaces,” she said.

Vail said sophisticated sensors can detect when a vehicle’s tire encounters slippery surfaces, allowing traction controls to improve braking distances under adverse weather conditions.

“I got to work on different projects, which made it interesting,” she said.

The best part of her experience was getting to collaborate with experts from different departments, she said.

“I don’t think I would like working on a project alone. I really liked the team aspect of the projects,” she said.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science Professor Munir Nazzal is working with Honda Motor Co. and the state Department of Transportation to demonstrate that sensors and cameras on commercial vehicles can identify potholes, missing signage, low shoulders and other hazards for transportation officials to improve public safety.

UC Professor Munir Nazzal is director of the Center for Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure. He is working with Honda Motor Co. and the Ohio Department of Transportation to examine how autonomous vehicles can capture useful information about road conditions and hazards in real time. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Fast track to success

Innovation is a big driver at Honda, Evans said. The company partners with UC and other research institutions on a range of engineering and transportation projects.

UC Professor Munir Nazzal recently began working with Honda and the Ohio Department of Transportation on a pilot project to demonstrate how autonomous vehicles can collect and share valuable information about infrastructure such as potholes, faded lane markings and other road hazards.

“Honda has always believed in the power of dreams which directly ties to innovation,” Evans said. “We are introducing new products and technology at a faster rate than ever before and look to our co-ops and new hires to bring new and fresh ideas that will help us be a leader in our industry.”

Things aren't always going to work out perfectly, but as long as you give it your all — that's what matters.
Emma Vail | UC co-op student

Vail took advantage of some of the in-house classes that Honda offered employees. One welding class was a particularly useful skill to Vail as a member of Bearcat Motorsports. The student group designs, builds and tests Formula One style vehicles in competition with other colleges.

Students build the cars from the wheels up from a bare steel frame they design and assemble themselves. On a recent tour, Vail showed off one frame that she warned was still hot to the touch from recent welds. Around the corner was last year’s completed Formula One car painted in UC black and red with team stickers.

Next, Vail said she might pursue her next co-op in aerospace engineering.

“I think it's the mentality to always do your best no matter the situation,” she said. “Things aren't always going to work out perfectly, but as long as you give it your all — that's what matters.”

Additional credits

Photos: Andrew Higley, unless otherwise noted
Digital design: Kerry Overstake
UC Marketing + Communications

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