As a high school student, Spencer Macturk became intrigued by the businesses that engage engineering as their bread and butter. He had long been an avid fan of SpaceX’s rocketry program, watching with excitement when the company successfully landed the Falcon 9 on a drone ship in 2016.

The vision of the rocket rising into space and returning to earth wasn’t his only area of intrigue. Macturk was also interested in how engineering applied to a number of career paths and how those disciplines were brought to life in business. He entered Virginia Tech with the desire to pursue the hands-on experiences that might help him find the direction he liked best.

Now in his second year as a mechanical engineering major, Macturk has found his formula for receiving that experience: combining cooperative education and internships. Helping him build a strong professional foundation, those experiences have enriched one another, giving Macturk a better sense of how his education is preparing him for the career he might want to enter.

The drive to work

The difference between co-op and internship offerings is somewhat subtle. According to Virginia Tech’s Cooperative Education and Internship Program, co-ops usually refer to a multi-work term agreement with one employer. This traditionally involves at least three work terms alternated with school terms, resulting in a five-year degree program for what would otherwise take four years. Co-ops are traditionally full-time, paid positions.

Internships are usually a one-term work assignment, most often in the summer. Internships can be full or part-time and paid or unpaid, depending on the employer and the career field.

Macturk has done both. Internships offered the opportunity to spend a short amount of time picking up some new experience, but he also liked the more immersive projects available in co-ops. He has done one internship and is now employed in his second co-op, and plans to rack up one more of each before graduation.

He first entered the world of co-ops as a Quality Engineer, analyzing operations efficiencies at Altec Industries in 2020. The observations he made paid off: his work created an estimated total savings of over $37,600 annually for the company’s lines producing construction and utility equipment.

“That experience made me a better engineer and definitely increased my knowledge of what I can do,” said Macturk.

Spencer Macturk practices his welding during a co-op at Altec.
Spencer Macturk practices his welding during a co-op at Altec. Photo courtesy of Spencer Macturk.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Macturk took up an opportunity to work in a design internship with Collins Aerospace. Working mostly virtually during the summer of 2021, he led the development of a patent-pending, spring damper time delay mechanism, helping to fine-tune its design to get it closer to market readiness.

That experience was followed by a third: Macturk is now working with General Electric (GE) Aviation in their supply chain in Boston. He hopes for a total of five work experiences before he graduates, planning those for two more summers. All told, Macturk will graduate in 2024 with four years of academic studies and a full year of combined co-op and internship experiences.

While being away from the Blacksburg campus is a different plan than most students take, he sees a lot of added value for the bonus amount of career preparation he will have.

“Once I graduate, I'll have a great idea where I want to end up, and the experiences that go along with it,” he said. 

Despite being physically located in Boston to work with GE, Macturk still maintains active involvement in student activities, including his role on the Orbital Launch Vehicle Team. This is a true passion project, connected to the fascination he’s had with the projects of SpaceX for years. Macturk serves as a structural engineer for the team, working on macro-level projects such as engineering retainment bolts to withstand the G-forces of a launch. His involvement with the team has been virtual during the period of the pandemic, but he plans to maintain that commitment. Since he can do most of his design and analysis on a computer, virtual involvement is much simpler. He works on those projects after his workday at GE.

Education and work come together

The worlds of work and education have converged for Macturk, creating a perspective that would have been impossible from only one point of view. Learning MATLAB programming during his first year in the classroom was interesting work, but it came to life when he used the program at Collins Aerospace. The teamwork and strategy he learned from working with industry professionals flavored his experience as a researcher and a leader in the classroom, he explained, and working with fellow students helped inspire his drive for innovative approaches.

“It’s a great opportunity to apply some of the things you learn in the classroom, and it gives a purpose to what you’re doing,” Macturk said. “You can speak to what you use in the software, and it’s not just a class project you’ve done. It’s a project on a team that includes dollar signs and deadlines.”

These experiences have also opened up opportunities for return offers and job extensions from the companies for which Macturk has worked, following the completion of a job well done. These possibilities keep him mindful of the future he is building as he goes, connecting with companies that might be a good fit for his career.

“I’m very happy with the decision I made [to co-op and intern] and the amount of person-to-person interaction I get while working,” Macturk said. “Now I can apply these lessons from the real world back into the classroom and see why I’m learning these things. And of course, the pay you get is pretty nice.”

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