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Cornell Engineering

Putting Theories into Practice

MAE Instructional Labs Director Matt Ulinski brings students beyond learning.

Untitled-1Matt Ulinski loves his job the way a kid loves play dates—with a passion. “I have the best toys and hundreds of the world’s brightest students to share them with. I love my job,” he says.

Ulinski is Cornell’s Hansen Director of Instructional Labs for the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. His work centers on the experiential component of students’ mechanical engineering education. He oversees the department’s laboratory courses and, to his delight, supervises the department’s student project team program.

In addition, Ulinski has recently added the role of director of MAE’s Master of Engineering program to his job description, and will have to drop the student project team portion. “I will miss the projects. But I see this new opportunity as a challenge and I love challenges,” he says.

As Hansen Director, Ulinski helps MAE students put the theory they are learning in class into practice. Students begin with small labs assignments, such as stress testing metal to see how it performs, up to designing and building new bicycles with increased safety in mind. “They start out breaking metal and by the time they are seniors, this is what they do,” he says on a lab tour, pointing to a bike with two front tires connected by an axle. “This way, they will learn how to design a safer plane or a sturdier car, so no one gets hurt.”

He has three staff members, and 10 labs, to help him with the hundreds of students each term who take part in any of the 14 lab courses the department offers. Faculty design new experiments regularly for Ulinski’s team to test out. “About half of those work out and then we implement them,” he says.

In the basement of Upson Hall, around the corner from Ulinski’s office, is the student project lab. The huge lab, a former machine shop, offers students the space and tools to design and build a variety of projects, from high performance cars, to solar houses, aircraft, and underwater vehicles, outside of class. 

“When we did a focus group in 2004 asking students what they wanted,” Ulinski says, “they continually said they wanted private space for each project. But the lab space allows for collegiality and collaboration among the students, where they can share their expertise and their tools with their colleagues.”

The lab is jam-packed with model planes, motor parts, and entire engines. A shiny chandelier with no bulbs hangs from the high ceiling over a doorway. 

Each project has a team of 25 to 30 students. Currently there are 18 such projects, with Ulinski available for advice and encouragement. “Cornell has exceptionally good students,” he says. “We are here to provide a safe atmosphere to work in.” 

Each team acts as its own company, Ulinski says. They have a budget and schedule and create a product on a deadline. They learn how to lead, how to work on a team, and how to deal with setbacks. “I offer a lot of encouragement. These students, because they are so good, often have no experience with the concept of failure. My job is to help them work past that.”

On the other hand, some students are so fired up by the project, all of their free time is spent in the lab. “These are some highly motivated students getting the maximum benefit from their Cornell experience,” he says.

Many of the resulting project products go on to win in national competitions. But the learning the students receive, regardless of trophies and prizes, is immeasurable, Ulinski says. “When we are doing our jobs correctly, we are letting our students make mistakes and learn from them. If you go through life not making mistakes, that’s a problem.”

Ulinski came to Cornell in 2001 from Boston, where he spent five years as director of laboratories at Northeastern University’s Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering Department. He also taught a core course on engineering measurements and error analysis at Northeastern, where he had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. 

Before that, he was a successful auto mechanic who owned Cambridge Carworks Inc., a progressive auto repair and body shop in Cambridge. But he wanted a change. “I was tired of being a business owner,” he says. “After some career counseling, it became clear I should either be a mechanical engineer or an FBI agent. The FBI thought I was too old.”

Ulinski did some consulting work after graduation. When the lab position opened up at Northeastern, he jumped on it. Cornell and Ithaca beckoned at a time when he was thinking about moving away from busy Boston to a cozier community. Now, with his wife and four daughters, he has become a gentleman farmer in nearby Danby, raising alpacas, goats, and chickens. 

His future career plans include more of the same: “This is my perfect job. Why would I go anywhere else?” he says with a laugh.
— Kathryn Quinn Thomas