Design-team project, internships help launch a career

Engineering student’s undergrad journey shows benefits of hands-on learning

Mark McGriskin (B.Eng 2019) was the kind of kid who’d go behind the hardware store counter to see how a new key was cut. “I was curious how they made the shape of the key, stuff like that – mechanical, tangible stuff,” he says. Though he grew up in small town New Jersey, he and his Canadian parents tagged McGill’s Faculty of Engineering as a good option for someone whose favourite high school classes were physics and calculus.

Mark’s first year of university had a lasting impact. “Just living alone, waking up and coming to class and seeing thousands of other kids doing the same thing. It was intimidating at first and very stressful, but looking back it was the best, so exciting and new.” He loved meeting students from so many places. “In the real world you’re working with people from different countries, different languages, so having that diverse experience is very important.”

For the first time, Mark felt deeply challenged in school. He also saw a chance to develop real-world skills through the Faculty’s many student design teams, which tackle projects such as making robots, Formula Electric race cars, or concrete canoes.

Hands-on design

Mark got involved in the Baja Racing team, where students design, build and race a single-seat off-road vehicle within one year for a competition. “It looks like an ATV with a roll cage and steering wheel,” he says. “It’s for jumps and mud and snow and rocks, not for going super-fast.” Or at least, not in as precise a manner as the Formula cars. “It’s a little more rough-and-tumble and suspension-focused as opposed to maximum speed.”

Professor Larry Lessard, Baja faculty advisor for 30 years, likes helping the students. “They learn an important combination of several skills including engineering, management, teamwork and leadership, all of which can help in their future jobs,” he says.

The first year on Baja you show up once a week to learn how it’s done and see where your interests lie, Mark explains. “Second year I did the frame that we design ourselves. We ordered the steel tubes and we welded them together to make the backbone, the skeleton of the vehicle.”

Later that year he stepped into one of the leadership roles, and for his third, he was team captain of the roughly 60 students who worked on the project. He was in daily contact with a core dozen for the planning, manufacturing and problem-solving. Mark likens it to running a small start-up company, including being responsible for budgeting for parts and machinists.

“Building a vehicle? It’s as hard as it sounds,” he says. Baja is like an apprenticeship in which passing down knowledge is key. “Someone held my hand, and I held someone else’s hand, and so on.”

Summer internships

Interspersed with school and Baja were his summer internships. Students can get paid experience in their field through the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering programs (SURE) or the Engineering Internship Program (EIP). (Though if a student wants to fast-track straight through their classes to the job market, that’s possible, too.)

Mark’s first internship was with an automotive company in Detroit. For his second internship, Mark approached the McGill Institute of Aerospace Engineering for help. After a rigorous application process, he landed a spot with Pratt and Whitney doing supply chain management.

Mark McGriskin

These early internships were intimidating for a 20-year-old, Mark says. “Walk into a company of thousands of people who really know what they’re doing? Just try to listen more than you speak and work as hard as you can,” he advises.

The internships broadened his skills from those he learned in the classroom. “There's no calculating shockwave location or finding the mach number at exit, but really working with people. It's an art of its own. Crafting concise emails to get your point across, but then not to take up too much of someone's time -- the soft skills,” he says. “You're not designing mission-critical stuff; it's trying to learn as much as you can and see how people work together.”

Working in Montreal

Since he loved Montreal, Mark looked for work in town after he graduated. University connections led him to Taiga Motors, which manufactures electric off-road vehicles such as snowmobiles and personal watercraft. (Some of the engineers who founded the company were on other McGill design teams and shared a space with Baja.)

“I started off doing the frame for the snowmobile, very applicable to what I was doing on the Baja,” Mark says. As the company grew from prototypes to production, Mark transitioned to a role in which he helped figure out who was going to make the parts, and where.

Deciding he wanted to see how a bigger company does procurement using a well-established supply chain, Mark reached out to his former internship boss at Pratt, where he is now a procurement specialist. “My job is working with suppliers, and I have a certain number of parts that I’m responsible for making sure they come in on time and get on to engines.”

At Pratt, he currently uses soft skills over technical skills, but hopes to use both in the future. “There’re a lot of negotiations, talking to people, trying to convince people to do stuff they don’t want to do,” he laughs. “Fewer calculations of numbers.”

Advice for prospective students

In his last year at McGill, Mark pulled back from Baja, instead volunteering to be design team rep for the Engineering Undergraduate Society, to have more time to participate in the downhill ski club and play hockey. And also to hang out with his youngest brother, whom he convinced to come to McGill to do Mechanical Engineering. (Ryan graduated last spring, and yes, he also worked on Baja.)

What advice would Mark give prospective students? “Be yourself, have fun. Don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and meet new people. You'll make a lot of friends and a lot of great memories…. Put yourself into your extracurriculars and your classes and try to befriend professors and learn from them.”

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