Naval scientist tackles Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering program
It’s 6 a.m. and that all-too-familiar alarm tone sounds. You hop out of bed, get ready for work, and head out the door. For some, the alarm may ring earlier for a morning workout. Others might grab breakfast before they leave.
For John Robie, his day begins much like this. But when his workday ends – things start to look very different.
Robie works at the Naval Support Facility-Dalghren in Dalghren, Virginia, and has been employed as a scientist there since 2017. Much of his day at work is spent modeling, predicting, and testing the behavior of radio frequency systems. Robie earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, which landed him the job at Dahlgren, and he has always loved engineering in the form of complex problem solving.
The call to learn more
Robie realized that in his professional career, he was using an engineering skill set every day and that having a deeper understanding of the discipline would be beneficial to him. He was longing for more. A new challenge. That next step.
“Every day at work I was researching journal articles to find solutions to a problem. During my searches, I just kept finding things from Virginia Tech faculty and others associated with the university. When I came across the Master of Engineering Program [M.Eng], the decision to continue my education at Virginia Tech was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.”
The Virginia native always knew he wanted to continue his education, and Robie seized the opportunity of the M.Eng program and the flexibility that went along with its virtual/hybrid option.
“With working full time and not being super close to the Northern Virginia campus, I didn’t think I’d have time in the evening after work to get to any physical in-person classes,” Robie said. “The freedom to take classes from almost anywhere made the program really appealing to me.”
At the end of Robie’s work day, he takes off the Dalghren employee hat and puts on his M.Eng student thinking cap.
“Most of my classes have been immediately after my work day," he said. "Generally, they start at about 4 p.m., so I usually have a 4-5:15 and then a 5:30-6:45. I make every attempt to attend the lectures live on Zoom, and since so many students are doing the same thing, it doesn’t seem strange at all."
By joining the lectures synchronously on Zoom, Robie is able to ask questions in real-time just like he would if he were physically present in the classroom.
“I don’t feel any loss there [not being in person]," he said. "In fact, it's more convenient for me. With working a full-time job, it's way easier than having to get in my car, fight traffic, and drive to attend classes in person.”
Of course, almost every working professional knows that sometimes things during your workday come up at the last minute. This is where the flexibility of the M.Eng program really shines through.
“Fortunately, I have the flexibility to attend classes synchronously most of the time, but if something comes up, like a meeting that I can’t reschedule, I just reach out to my professor with as much notice as I can and the work considerations are always understood.”
Graduate students who miss a live lecture are able to go back and watch the recording later. Follow-up questions are always answered in a timely fashion by the faculty teaching those courses, too.
Robie and other students also have the ability to interface remotely with the lab equipment they may need for research. All of the lab hardware is networked, so students can access the lab server through the virtual private network and get hands-on experience from almost anywhere.
Robie said the flexibility of this program also is made possible by other students in the master's degree and Ph.D programs who are part of his research group.
“There are some things that need to be done in person, but, luckily, there are students at the research center full-time who are always willing to help swap out an antennae or something like that, if needed,” he said. “It is nice to know that I can depend on my research partners and something wouldn’t be in need of repair or out of commission until I could drive up there.”
This type of hands-on learning curriculum (in person or from networked hardware) is a signature of the Master of Engineering program and is called project-based learning.
The goal is to create a learning environment that engages students with authentic, real-world problems or challenges over the course of the program. It is considered a high-impact practice because of its effectiveness for promoting learning, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
“The masters of engineering students get deeply immersed into a research and development environment and solve actual problems proposed by corporations in a team environment,” said Vassilios Kovanis, collegiate professor and M.Eng program director for Northern Virginia, who recently joined the faculty of the Innovation Campus in Alexandria. “As a result, they learn to cope with interpersonal conflict, understand the needs of the customer, and become subject matter experts.”
The Virginia Tech advantage
Virginia Tech is among the top 20 graduate programs for electrical and computer engineering in the country. In addition to this top billing, Robie said the professors within the M.Eng program have made his decision to continue his education at Virginia Tech even more worthwhile.
“If you go down a technical rabbit hole about something very specific, I am always amazed because more often than not, there is someone at Virginia Tech who not only studies that particular niche topic, but they are often the go-to person for that research,” said Robie.
He also talked about the great learning experience he has had by taking courses from not just professors, but industry professionals. Many of the professors have an industry background, and the M.Eng program is leveraging industry partnerships such as the one with leading global aerospace and defense company, Northrop Grumman. The Falls Church-based company has committed $12.5 million toward a new Center of Quantum Architecture and Software Development in Alexandria. The quantum engineering research will be an important addition to the already innovative curriculum offered to computer engineering and computer science M.Eng students.
Robie said he is excited to one day pass on the knowledge he’s gained by mentoring other young engineers in the future.
Robie knew that to get the technical credibility he was looking for, continuing his education was the way to make that happen.
“Nobody makes you go back to school. It was really about wanting to continue my education for myself in a very advanced way,” Robie said.
He started his graduate education journey in fall 2020 and will be finishing up this fall. His intent is to continue on and start working toward his Ph.D in January. While he is still undecided about wanting to teach in the future, Robie definitely sees himself in the entrepreneurial space. He is specifically interested in defense and cybersecurity.
“Particularly within electrical engineering and computer engineering, there are a lot of professors who are tenure-track faculty and have been teaching but also start up businesses of their own. They build a team of former students and create something that is useful to federal customers in the D.C. area – especially as it relates to hot topics like defense and machine learning,” Robie said.
One professor in particular that Robie looks up to in this area of entrepreneurship is Angelos Stavrou. Stavrou is a founder of Kryptowire, a leader in cloud-based mobile security and privacy solutions and who is also a new Innovation Campus faculty member, where he will serve as entrepreneurship lead. Stavrou’s goal is to empower students with the education and opportunity to incubate new companies.
As Robie’s mentor and advisor, Stavrou complimented Robie’s diverse background as both an industry engineer and government researcher. Stavrou also said he is looking forward to continuing to work with Robie in the future as he pursues his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech.
“While most students perceive the M.Eng as an industry-oriented degree, there is a small percentage who decide to continue to get a Ph.D. and mature their knowledge and ideas within academia," Stavrou said. "We are very excited when our students decide to continue their studies because, being in an applied field, it provides more opportunities to develop intellectual property that they can later leverage as they decide what the next steps in their career are.”
Robie said being back in school, especially in the graduate program, is something he loves and would recommend to anyone looking to continue their education in a field that has a lot of future growth potential. Being able to work and still complete his degree in a timely manner made his decision easy.
“Within my experience, this is the best program available to me in the country, and the flexibility is what has really made this doable for me.”