Seaworthy Engineering

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

September 25, 2017

By Matt Hawkins

If Bradley mechanical engineering major Zach Pakula ’18 has his way, he’ll design a boat and one day sail the Seven Seas. Should that dream become a reality, Bradley connections and experiences will be keys to his success

Chicago native Pakula grew up sailing on Lake Michigan. He sailed the Midwest and dreamed of a shipping industry career. An engineering degree became the path to open water for the student who mastered boating’s basic mechanical principles long before college.

“I’ve always liked the freedom and self-reliance of boating,” he said. “I can pull up anchor, move around the world and see everything.”

Pakula’s mechanical curiosity took him to Bradley’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, which provided valuable learning experiences through a long-term clean water project in Guatemala. EWB built a system of wells to give a village access to an aquifer. With that completed, the team shifted to designing and building a large storage and distribution system.

These projects challenged Bradley students to work through cultural, language and economic differences. They had to solve problems using technology and materials available in Guatemala, which rarely aligned with resources at home. They also wrote instruction manuals in English and Spanish.

Pakula didn’t travel with the team to project sites, but he played an important role conceptualizing and designing equipment back home.

“It’s been eye-opening to think about things that aren’t problems in the U.S.,” he said. “That enhanced my ability to work through problems and gave me confidence I could handle whatever comes my way.”

A reborn engineering campus fraternity also prepared Pakula for his future. Bradley’s initial Sigma Phi Delta chapter disbanded in the mid-1990s, but students and local alumni revived it his 2014 freshman year. Restarting meant a lengthy introduction to processes and traditions.

Once the fraternity recolonized, it provided members frequent learning experiences beyond the classroom. Students have toured Argonne National Laboratory, Caterpillar, John Deere and other companies reliant on engineering graduates. Members also meet with SPD alumni frequently and find networking opportunities within the field.

“We learn together and challenge ourselves to keep high GPAs, but we know how to have fun together,” Pakula said. “We’ve all grown as we’ve developed connections through SPD. It’s been great to have the guys to fall back on.”

These experiences sharpened Pakula’s critical thinking and technical skills as he pushed toward his marine dreams. He noted the importance of engineering ingenuity to maintain and improve engines, mechanical parts, electronics and boat structures. Classroom lessons often found real-world applications as he worked on boats during summer breaks.

Though he would like a career designing high performance race boats or exploring cutting-edge materials science, he recognized his boating background would be a benefit no matter where his career sails.

“The best engineers probably had an experience on water growing up,” he said. “If I can’t get into a shipyard or boat designing firm right away, mechanical engineering is so broad I can do a lot of things. Doors will open because the degree is focused on solving problems.”