New program brings real world of engineering to campus

engineer in residence and student

ECE senior Erin Karasz and Engineer in Residence Richard Toftness review an early model of Karasz’s snowflake sensing system. 

Something unique is happening inside the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) student projects laboratory at Colorado State University. An innovative new program is providing a window into the real world of engineering by bringing experienced professionals into labs to work alongside students.

Last fall, the ECE department teamed up with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to launch the Engineer in Residence (EiR) program. Designed to help students develop professional skills and learn firsthand how that knowledge relates to the workplace, the program is attracting seasoned engineers from a range of companies and areas of technical expertise. With a dedicated space of their own inside the ECE projects lab, EiR volunteers devote many hours each week to helping students overcome technical challenges, navigate their careers, and gain insights into life after CSU.

Invaluable outside perspectives

“While our education gives us the tools we need to figure out engineering problems, we appreciate the perspectives and advice of the EiR volunteers,” said Erin Karasz, a senior electrical engineering student. “They have gained more experience and wisdom than we could possibly have, and they help us see the big picture.”

Karasz is one of five students working on a snowflake sensing system with the goal of creating more accurate winter weather predictions. Karasz and her team reached out to EiR volunteer Richard Toftness, an engineering consultant with Tasterra Consulting and Design, for general project advice and feedback on current technologies used in industry.

Electrical engineering students Andrew Sullivan and Darrin Minnard have also capitalized on the EiR program. Sullivan and Minnard contacted EiR volunteers Sam Babb, a retired engineer from Hewlett-Packard, and Scot Heath, director of engineering for Enabled Energy, for advice about the high-voltage electric system in their mini Indy-style electric car project.

engineer in residence with students
Engineer in Residence volunteers Scot Heath and Sam Babb help ECE students Darrin Minnard and Andrew Sullivan simplify a project design.

“The EiR volunteers are an absolute wealth of knowledge,” Sullivan said, “and they know about all kinds of systems – not just electrical, but also mechanical.” Minnard added: “Sam and Scot saved us untold time by showing us how our problem is addressed in industry, which allowed us to simplify our design.” He laughed, “As a bonus, they are hilarious and fun to be around.”

Mutually beneficial partnership

While still in the pilot phase, the EiR program is gaining momentum. In addition to preparing students for the challenges of professional life, the program allows industry partners to give back to the community, recruit promising graduates, and experience the excitement of campus.

“I keep calling the Engineer in Residence program a grand experiment,” said Toftness, IEEE section secretary and founder of the program. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the early results of this effort.” Toftness said he wants the program to continue to evolve and serve as a source of pride for EiR volunteers and the department alike. Most of all, he hopes students will aspire to learn from accomplished engineers who are committed to the future of the discipline.

To learn more about the EiR program, contact Richard Toftness at