March 12, 2019

Building teamwork skills outside the classroom

Peter Skrajny says the hands-on skills learned as part of the Formula SAE team enhanced his engineering education
Peter Skrajny

Engineering school breeds a certain camaraderie, but joining a team can bring students even closer together. It creates an atmosphere of mentorship and support while allowing them to practice the skills they learn in class. Schulich’s roster of teams has students building solar-powered vehicles, off-road racecars, rockets and more, all with the goal of an end-of-year competition. Beyond the excitement of seeing their ideas come to fruition, students get experience working with and sometimes leading a team, skills that are infinitely valuable in the eyes of today’s employers.

Formula one, from day one

The moment Peter Skrajny saw the Formula SAE car on display during first year orientation, he knew he wanted to join the Schulich Racing team. Three years later,Skrajny became the team’s captain, leading a group of more than 60 students in their quest to design and build an even faster, lighter open-wheeled race car than the year before.

“Originally, starting engineering was kind of daunting,” he says. “Joining the team helped in more ways than I ever expected. We have this team with students from every year who give each other support, not only with things like lending text books but also with sharing their knowledge and experiences. If you had any questions on first year calculus, there were a lot of people to turn to for help.”

Skrajny says, beyond the moral support, the biggest takeaway from his experience with Schulich Racing is the ability to follow through on big projects. Being on the team gave him clear guidelines on how to approach long-term tasks, such as taking the time to focus on initial research before moving onto design. He says the skills he gained from hands-on experience outside of the classroom helped set the stage for success during his internship year and will continue to do so after graduation.

Bringing classroom concepts to life

For Dane Morison, the decision to join the Schulich Off-Road team came around the same time he received his placement in Mechanical Engineering. Contrary to what most people expect of engineering students, Morison was never one to tinker and tear things apart. Instead, his interest in mechanics was born of the satisfaction that comes from learning the inner-most intricacies of how something works, then designing a way to fine tune it to make it even better. He knew he was going to need some experience getting his hands dirty and figured there were few better choices than to work on a competitive off-road car.

“Being on the Baja team has enhanced my engineering experience ten-fold,” says Morison, who became the team’s leader this year. “When you go through the degree, the classroom work is all theoretical—and there’s definitely a need to understand the foundations of all these principles you’re learning—but the classroom work and even the labs don’t necessarily touch on the practical applications. Anyone can follow a lab manual and press the levers and buttons, but it’s not indicative of what actually happens when you apply those theories in real situations.”

Morison says he remembers exactly the moment when he first realized the value of the Baja team experience. He was bending a steel tube for the buggy’s frame when the material sprang back to its original shape, a concept he’d learned in class but never seen in action. Observing how that principle played out taught him to keep his eyes open to other demonstrations of engineering principles while participating on the team. And, while being fully enriching and educational, Morison says being on the team was also a ton of fun.

Turning teamwork into life work

After finishing her first year of engineering, Emily Dawson was determined to make her time at Schulich a more hands-on experience. She’d heard talk of all the clubs and teams available for students to join and eventually found herself a spot on the Baja team. The team of close to 40 students from all stages of their degrees spends the year designing and building an off-road car that they then race at an end-of-year competition.

“It really stood out as feeling more like a place where I belonged,” says Dawson, who was the team’s leader last year. “Everyone seemed to be really close. They all worked well together and made an effort and that’s still the case today. It becomes about a lot more than building a car. It’s something of a family. We all get very close by the end of it and work very hard to bring things together. To be honest, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now if I hadn’t been part of this team.”

Dawson stayed at Schulich during her internship year, working as Design Intern at the Engineering Machine Shop. She handles design work, machining and 3D printing for all aspects of the engineering school, including the competitive teams. Schulich dedicated part of its recent expansion to providing these groups with the latest equipment and workshop space to help make their big builds possible. Dawson says it’s been helpful to have all the teams working in the same space where they can share knowledge and use space especially designed for these projects, including the hot works area and a temperature-controlled paint booth.

If you build it, they will build

Making space and tools available is just part of what Schulich is doing to support its clubs and teams. The school also provides mentoring, training and expert oversight to help the competitive teams see their projects through. Arin Sen, associate dean of student professional development, says students are encouraged to build and manage as much as they can on their own so the school needed to make sure they had access to every resource they might need, from safety training to marketing support and even the trailer needed to haul their machines to competition.

“These are students who have a limited time and limited budget with a team of rotating people who have to get a product out the door by a certain time,” says Sen. “They get to practice their technical skills but, outside of that, they’re responsible for marketing, for writing reports, for rent and for using the tools responsibly. We provide them with some funding but they’re responsible for going out to get some kind of sponsorship. These are all professional skills that are important for engineers to have and they’re getting that experience on the teams.”

Sen says the next step will be to open the school’s new maker spaces to all University of Calgary students and, eventually, the outside community. He says, with the expertise and equipment now available at Schulich, the school has the potential to become a hub for prototype creation and experimentation. This could give all students at the University of Calgary the chance to explore their ideas and potentially turn them into functional products the world can use.