Wakefield resident to be youngest 2008 URI graduate, top computer engineering student

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Electronics whiz started taking URI computer science classes at age 13

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 12, 2008 – Wakefield resident Will Simoneau started taking classes at the University of Rhode Island at age 13. Six years later he will graduate on May 18 as the top computer engineering student and with the distinction of being the youngest to earn a URI degree this year.

“I wasn’t looking for anything especially challenging with those first classes,” he recalled. “I took computer science classes just for fun, and I did fine in them.”

When Simoneau enrolled as a full-time student in the spring of 2005 at age 15, he started out as a computer science major but soon switched to computer engineering because he was more interested in “the nuts and bolts” of computer hardware.

The URI student made the most of that interest in a wide range of class projects and research opportunities while also helping to maintain the nearly 100 computers in use in the URI Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In one research project, he worked in collaboration with URI Associate Professor Fred Vetter on a genetic algorithm to create a computer model of a rabbit heart to understand the stresses placed on it in hopes of transferring that knowledge to better understand the human heart.

“A genetic algorithm essentially tries to find the solution to some problem by modeling evolution,” explained Simoneau, who will receive the URI President’s Award for Excellence prior to graduation. “You try to find the optimal values for a number of parameters by breeding two good sets of parameters together. In our case, we were trying to optimize a model of the walls of a rabbit’s heart.”

“Will is an outstanding student who, by his own initiative, significantly revised some critical software components and yielded a 30 percent speed increase,” said Vetter. “He has more motivation and skills than many graduate students. The future is extremely bright for this promising young engineer.”

When Simoneau wasn’t in the lab or fixing a computer, he could often be found building high performance audio amplifiers.

“I like music, and I’m into electronics, so I try to make amplifiers that perform better than anything else that’s available,” he said. “I find flaws in the way a system works, and then I find a way to make it better. I’ve built amplifiers both for full-size speakers and for headphones.”

Simoneau’s other hobby is building large-scale model railroads. His 1/8 scale trains run on tracks around his backyard. The railroad includes a real coal-fired steam engine, plus another steam engine built over the course of a decade by his father, Larry, the manager of technical facilities in the URI Department of Ocean Engineering.

“My father’s been into this stuff for years,” he said. “Model railroading is contagious. Once you’re exposed to it as a kid, you can’t get away from it. But not many people do large-scale stuff because it’s not practical when you don’t have the space for it. My whole backyard is completely filled with tracks.”

With graduation fast approaching, Simoneau is looking forward to enrolling in graduate school at URI to study high performance computer architecture.

“I’m not sure about my future plans,” he said. “I could end up at a microprocessor company working as a designer, or with my electronics background and interest in audio, maybe I’ll end up in analog design. Or, I may end up teaching at a university.”

Regardless of the path he chooses, he is certain to get to his destination ahead of schedule.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.