Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor


August 31, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Masters of Engineering Program Director Advocates Hands-On, Practical Approach to Learning

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Senior Lecturer Matt Ulinski’s, mechanical and aerospace engineering, approach to education is unapologetically practical.

“[Experiential learning] is where it all is,” Ulinski explained. “I learned more or as much doing the hands-on stuff than I did doing the book learning. Hands-on training is an excellent complement to book learning.”

Throughout Ulinski’s 15 years of teaching at Cornell, his practical approach to learning has promulgated opportunities for Cornell engineers to access hands-on work, most notably through project teams.

As director of the Student Project Team Program, Ulinski helped grow the program from a handful of teams to over seventeen. Now, over 750 students participate in project teams, according to the University.

For six years, Ulinski participated directly in hands-on learning with students as an advisor of the Solar Decathlon team, which he said competes every two years in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

Ulinski described the team’s work as “a two-year design-to-build cycle, from concept to execution.” The “execution” portion tasks teams with building a solar-powered, functioning model house on the Washington Mall.

“And you build this house from scratch,” he added.

Currently, Ulinski’s primary role is as director of MAE’s industry-oriented Master of Engineering program. This program too is applied, Ulinski said.

“I look at [the program] as just one big lab project for students, and you build coursework around it, professional development around it.” Ulinski explained. “You immerse yourself in a project; it’s all applied.”

In spite of his seemingly project-based approach to engineering, Ulinski stressed that engineers ought to become more involved in leadership roles and decision-making processes.

“Engineers need to start being ‘leaders’ rather than ‘doers,’” Ulinski said. “Engineers are so good at solving problems, but we have not often been included in the leadership of how those problems are solved.”

Ulinski, though optimistic in his message, warned that in pursuing their goal to “allow people to live better,” engineers may have “gone too far.”

“You can do things to an extreme; climate change is a perfect example,” Ulinski said. “We didn’t [generate climate change] because we wanted to hurt the environment; we wanted to make life better. But we’ve done it to such an extreme that now we have this change in weather patterns and other things that will be with us for a long time.”

Ulinski said that his position as an educator may enable him to engender the change he hopes to see.

“That change [from doers to leaders] has to happen at the educational level,” Ulinski explained. “We have to make sure our engineers are trained not just as engineers and scientists, but as professionals in government and in the whole gamut.”

The purpose with which Ulinski approaches his academic life contrasts sharply with his nomadic life before Cornell. Ulinski described his entry into academia as an “accident.”

In his early life, Ulinski followed his father, a United States Agency for International Development employee, around the globe. Ulinski would spend two to three years at a time in different countries.

“I spent the first 10 years of my life in underdeveloped places in India and Liberia, and Spain and Greece, and that had a huge impact on who I thought I was going to be,” Ulinski said, adding that he thought he might work in the State Department when he was older.

After spending most of high school in Italy — despite the fact that both his parents were back in the United States at this time — Ulinski enrolled at George Washington University to study international relations. He stayed only for one semester.

After leaving GWU, Ulinski enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in automotive technology. After this, he worked in the auto repair industry for 15 years. He spent eight of those years running his own auto repair and body shop in Cambridge, Mass.

Ulinski said he enjoyed his years as a mechanic, but not his years as a businessman.

“I have to tell you, I was the worst businessman in the world. I was really all about doing quality work and didn’t pay enough attention to money and profit,” Ulinski said.

Displeased with his business endeavor, Ulinski turned to a career counseling service to search for his next career option.

“I did career counseling and I [took a] Myers-Briggs [personality test],” Ulinski said, adding that he was pleased with the results. “This was me. I was finally reading about me!”

The test gave Ulinski three potential career paths: forest ranger, mechanical engineer, or law enforcement.

“I really wanted to go into law enforcement,” Ulinski said. “I really wanted to be a FBI agent.”

And so, Ulinski set his sights on the FBI.

“I looked at the FBI applications, and I discovered that the FBI was hiring mechanical engineers with a Bachelor of Science degree. It was the only bachelor’s degree they were hiring FBI agents with. Everything else was a master’s or a Ph.D.”

Ulinski decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree at Northeastern University. Motivated by the possibility of working for the FBI, Ulinski sustained seven years of night classes to finally attain the degree.

“I finished my degree when I was 29, sent in my application to the FBI, and I got a letter back saying that I was too old to matriculate into the program,” Ulinski reported.

Despite wanting to join the FBI for seven years, Ulinski managed to brush aside the rejection.

“By that time, I had embedded so much of my life in the mechanical engineering degree, so I wasn’t crushed. Although I still, to this day, think, ‘I didn’t get in,’” Ulinski said. “Their loss now. By far.”

Fortunately, Ulinski had impressed one of his advisors so much that the advisor asked Ulinski to stay at Northeastern as a graduate student. After earning his master’s degree there, Ulinski taught at Northeastern and was the mechanical engineering department’s director of laboratories.

After a four year stint at Northeastern, Ulinski and his family relocated to Ithaca, where Ulinski began to work at Cornell.

He currently lives on a ‘hobby farm’ in Danby, where his wife raises dogs and they both enjoy “just being out in the country.”

Overall, Ulinski enjoys both his personal and his professional life.

“I’m jazzed about everything in life,” Ulinski said.