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Two engineering grads awarded prestigious Governor General’s Academic MedalsJune 16, 2022

McMaster engineering graduates have captured two of the three Governor General Academic Medals that the university awarded in 2022.

Considered among the most prestigious student awards in Canada, the medals are given to graduating students who have earned the highest grade point averages throughout their first baccalaureate degree program.

Created in 1873, the medals recognize exceptional academic achievement and place recipients among the top students in the country.

The two engineering students awarded this year’s medals are Chris Schankula, who earned his degree in software engineering and Mitchell Cooke, who earned his degree in computer engineering.

 

Chris Schankula

Chris Schankula’s fascination with computers started at age four, when the first one arrived in his household.

One of this year’s winners of the prestigious Governor General’s Academic Medal, he was coding by high school.

Schankula says he loves the fact that accomplishment is as near as his laptop, with no need for expensive labs or anything else to put his learning to work.

“I've always enjoyed creating things,” he says. “I’m not a very artistic person in terms of drawing or music or anything but I think this is my way of being creative. Just by writing out code, I can create new things that are helpful to people.”

But if computers are his first love, Schankula has discovered that teaching is his second.

It’s a passion he discovered through working with the McMaster Start Coding program, which teaches programming skills to elementary and middle school students in the Hamilton area.

“I’ve been involved for the last five years or so and in that time, we’ve been able to teach over 25,000 students from tons of classrooms around the area,” he says.

Along with teaching – both in classrooms and virtually – Schankula used his software skills to help develop the backend tools used to teach students.

That will be his focus this fall when he returns to McMaster’s Department of Computing & Software to complete a master’s degree.

“I’ll be developing tools and doing research to figure out how best to teach coding to a young generation,” he says. “We focus especially on underprivileged youth and people who are traditionally underrepresented in this field and that's kind of where I want to focus, so I can figure out how to best help them learn these skills.”

Schankula was also an active volunteer with the McMaster Chaplaincy Centre during his undergraduate days.

He says he managed the busy schedule by developing strategies to optimize his time. That let him put in the necessary work to achieve high marks and still left enough time to take part in extracurricular activities.

“I wanted to be part of those communities and meet people and give back in different capacities,” he says.

“When I came to campus, I really felt like, compared to everywhere else I visited, there was a real sense of community, a real sense of sort of family. I think that’s what drew me to McMaster and then I guess just wanted to be part of building that up and keeping that going for the next generations of students.”

 

Mitchell Cooke

Mitchell Cooke is no stranger to doing the heavy lifting.

The hard goals are actually what motivate and energize him, admits the computer engineering grad.

For example, to powerlift 600 pounds. Or achieve a perfect 12 grade point average in his final undergraduate year.

Cooke’s academic successes have earned him one of three Governor General’s Academic Medals awarded by McMaster this year.

The medal will be the second in Cooke’s collection. In 2017, he earned his first Governor General’s medal when he graduated with the highest Grade 12 average in his Toronto high school.

“I guess I’ve always enjoyed the personal sense of satisfaction of working hard and doing the best I could,” he says. “I really like being able to work toward a goal.”

At McMaster, Cooke discovered powerlifting – a strength sport that focuses an athlete’s efforts on a maximum weight lift – and joined the McMaster Barbell group. It provided a great outlet for university stress and a balance to his academic work.

He’s since turned his goal-driven approach to competitive powerlifting, preparing for a July competition and aiming to compete at the Canadian national level.

“It feels like powerlifting is the physical side of me striving to do the best I can. It’s like a competition against yourself.”

Cooke arrived at Mac planning to study mechanical engineering but quickly discovered a passion that landed him in computer engineering.

“I want to work on the hardware side,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of important problems that need to be solved in computers today.”

Along with his academic work and powerlifting hobby, Cooke worked as co-manager of electrical on the McMaster Solar Car project and spent several summers doing research under McMaster professors.

“The best part of my McMaster experience has been the people I’ve met – both friends that I’ve made, but also the professors. In ECE, I feel like they really care a lot about doing the best they can to educate students.”

When it comes to long-term goals, Cooke isn’t yet sure of his big dream.

He’s currently working as a hardware engineer at Intel and will begin a part-time master’s degree in September, focusing on improving memory communication speeds. His next academic goal is to get a paper published.

“Memory is currently the slowest part of modern computers, so I’m interested in researching ways to will allow for faster use of memory-intensive applications such as machine learning and computer vision,” he explains.

By gaining simultaneous experience in both industry and the graduate academic world, he hopes to see where he wants to take his career.

And while he’s proud to have his academic excellence recognized with the Governor General’s medal, Cooke says the motivation for achieving his goals is really internal.

“One of the things my parents taught me is that you should work toward something for your own personal satisfaction, rather than for money or recognition,” he says. “I think it has served me well.”