While on co-​​op at a global engi­neering firm, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity junior Brian Racca was con­fronted with a vexing chal­lenge of redesigning a small, but crit­ical com­po­nent of a nuclear reactor valve.

There were so many dif­ferent design con­fig­u­ra­tions I went through. I can’t say how many pieces of paper that I went through. There were piles of them,” said Racca, who ulti­mately pro­duced a custom design that suited the needs of the U.K.-based com­pany, The Weir Group PLC.

The task not only tested Racca’s ability to under­stand the valve’s intri­cate design, but it forced him to think about why the part needed to be replaced — the type of larger ques­tion engi­neers face every day in the real world. As a result, he gained valu­able expe­ri­ence addressing engi­neering chal­lenges in ways he’d never done before.

There is always more than one way to look at an engi­neering problem,” Racca said. “When­ever I approached someone at Weir with a ques­tion, they’d always answer it with another ques­tion. It def­i­nitely helped me learn as much as I did.”

Racca, a mechan­ical engi­neering major, spent six months on co-​​op last year working at Weir. He tackled numerous engi­neering design projects that came across his desk, helping the com­pany improve engi­neering solu­tions, often under pres­sure and tight dead­lines. The branch where Racca was located in Ipswich, Mass., pro­duces valves used for a range of appli­ca­tions in power plants, nuclear plants and other com­mer­cial facil­i­ties. The company’s valves are man­u­fac­tured and used in plants throughout the world.

One of his assign­ments involved studying a nuclear power plant valve that car­ries river water but was col­lecting too much dirt and sed­i­ment. He fixed the problem by sim­u­lating tests to dis­cover how to reduce the amount of fric­tion inside the valve.

For another assign­ment, Racca assessed the best prop­er­ties of two sim­ilar valve designs and worked to inte­grate them into one new design to improve effi­ciency and lower costs. A third task involved cal­cu­lating the max­imum amount of stress dif­ferent valves could handle on the job.

Racca said his hands-​​on expe­ri­ence at Weir would pay huge div­i­dends in the future, par­tic­u­larly because of the critical-​​thinking skills he devel­oped there.

One of the biggest things I wanted to take out of this co-​​op was the design expe­ri­ence — how you go about designing a part, and how you make it a reality,” he said.