“this one decision changed the entire trajectory of my career and one that I am thankful for to this today. “
My name is John Czajkowski; I graduated from URI’s Electrical Engineering Program and previously worked for Nabsys, a genomics research company, as Electronics Design Engineer. It was at URI in the fall of 2011 that I first met Professor Sunak.
He was the instructor for a course called ELE480 Capstone Design, a class which pairs a group of two to four senior computer and electrical engineering students with a local company to design and implement a solution to one of their “real world” problems. At the time, I was one of the aforementioned senior engineers who initially saw Capstone as a formality; as I had already accepted an entry level electrical engineering position at Electric Boat, so the course represented one final check box that needed to be ticked before I could start my career.
This was my mindset as Professor Sunak entered Kelly 102 to start our first class. He started by explaining the overall flow of the class, how the various companies would explain their projects. Once they had finished, we would need to rank our top four choices and provide a written explanation as to why we should be a part of each project, all the while emphasizing that success of any endeavor, be it Capstone or a future job activity, depended on the amount of passion and urgency applied to it, Initially these terms just seemed like Professor Sunak’s buzzwords, but with time I would learn to understand their full significance.
Fast forward a few weeks and I, along with the rest of my classmates, are eagerly awaiting our project assignments. I was assigned to my 3rd choice project, a specialized power supply for a research instrument a company called Nabsys was developing. At that moment, I was frankly a little upset with the assignment. I was an excellent student and I felt I had wrote a persuasive argument to place me in one of my higher ranked projects, but Professor Sunak clearly felt that the Nabsys project would be the right one for me.
In time Professor Sunak’s decision would prove to be a life altering one for me. As the project moved forward, Nabsys and I formed our own mutual admiration society. I was fascinated with their work and the opportunities it presented while they were delighted with the contributions I had made to the project and the work ethic I displayed. This all culminated in several awkward phone calls to Electric Boat informing them that I had been offered and had accepted a position at Nabsys. To this day I have no idea what turn of phrase or personality trait made Professor Sunak place me at Nabsys, but don’t think it is stretch to say that this one decision changed the entire trajectory of my career and one that I am thankful for to this today. However, my story with Professor Sunak does not end here, from this point forward I would be on the other side of the looking glass.
After working at Nabsys for several months, August came, and with it a call from Professor Sunak regarding another round of Capstone projects. Due to my familiarity with the program, I was asked to be a Technical Director, a position I had held for three years. Through this position I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for Professor Sunak’s “buzzwords” and the work he does in managing the projects. Through my years as a Technical Director, I’ve seen students from many different backgrounds, and varying levels of scholastic aptitude and I’ve noticed that while past experience and GPA can be somewhat predictive in terms of a student’s contribution, they are not nearly as accurate a barometer as their passion. Students who took Professor Sunak’s words to heart routinely perform at an unexpectedly high level given their GPA, while those who ignored his advice lost this valuable opportunity.
As a Technical Director I am pleased to report that due to Professor Sunak’s well-honed placement ability we have worked with very few students who lack the required passion. I cannot overstate how important I believe this ability is to the continued success of the Capstone program. Ultimately the program is an exchange between the student and the sponsor, where the sponsor hopes to receive the services of several well-trained engineers, while the student trades their efforts for potentially invaluable experience solving problems related to their chosen field. For this exchange and thus the program to continue, sponsors must be happy with the results of the student group, because if the student drag their heels and produce an unsatisfactory solution to the problem the likelihood that they will return in subsequent years is low.
Hence two key things must occur before the projects even begin. First sponsors must be found which have interesting problems and realistic expectations as to the amount of student time and effort required to solve them. If these two conditions are not met, the project has be built on a shaky foundation which will ultimately led to sponsor disappointment and a smaller sponsor pool. Secondly, students must be properly paired with a project. This means taking the wide range of prior experiences, talents and academic aptitude available and distributing in such a way that every sponsor’s problem can be solved. This skill is really more of an art rather than a science, requiring a rare type of insight which cannot be easily taught or replicated, for as I explained above numbers and bullet points do not tell the whole story. Professor Sunak has done a masterful job with both key requirements, setting expectations that create a strong foundation for success and then putting students in the best possible position to build upon that foundation.
On top of this, Professor Sunak continues to incorporate new ideas from students and Technical Directors alike, be in the use of google plus groups to facilitate better communication between himself, a Capstone team, and a Technical Director or by requiring the use of Prezi, an animation based alternative to Power Point to give the student another tool to explain their progress. This constant improvement of the program shows the Professor Sunak’s own passion for the job and fills me with confidence that each year Capstone will grow and change along with the engineering profession, ensuring that every student has the best possible chance to succeed.
I understand that my words are only those of a single former student, but I am sure that my story and the unquestioned role the Professor Sunak played in it is more common than one might think. His continued work to provide each and every computer and electrical engineering student with invaluable real life experience cannot be overstated. My only hope is that his ceaseless work, on behalf of his students, is appreciated not only by the aforementioned pupils but also by the University as a whole, as his work is as impactful any theoretical advance.
John Czajkowski, URI Class of 2012