Brisk studies and a heart for computational mechanics

Antti Valkonen started his bachelor’s studies in 2013 and graduated as a M.Sc. a scant three years later – with honours. How did this happen?

Originally, Valkonen was supposed to study in the five-year Degree Programme in Mechanical Engineering, but compulsory military service got in the way. He ended up starting his studies at Aalto University as one of the first students to enrol in the new Bachelor’s Programme in Engineering.

“I would have liked to study product development, but luckily I did not have to choose my major right away, giving me time to explore different subjects and figure out what I was truly interested in. That turned out to be computational mechanics.”                              

Getting hooked on mathematics

After an average performance in the mathematics test of his matriculation examination, Valkonen knew engineering mathematics could pose a real challenge. At the university, however, mathematics was no longer a source of trepidation like it used to be in upper secondary school.

”In school, I liked philosophy, which borders on mathematics. Mathematics in upper secondary and comprehensive school was mainly centred on calculation, whereas philosophy is closer to the type of mathematics I got to know at Aalto University.”

“I did not put much effort into mathematics before university, which I have since come to regret. Early on in my university studies it was obvious that I had no routine for mathematics. Still, I wanted to see how far my abilities could take me. I was motivated to study and as a result did well in mathematics courses. Successes are really important – you get hooked.”

“Doing the work that is needed and earning successes are essential at the start of one’s studies. I hope my story can serve as an inspiration to others like me: those who were not at the top of their class in school. Upper secondary school performance does not predetermine your university studies.”

Theory, a foundation for the engineering profession

The bones of engineering – mechanics and mathematics – are not very visible, and students often have little conception of them at the start of their studies.

”University studies offer a unique opportunity to dive into the basics of technology. Choosing Mechanical and Structural Engineering as my major forced me to become familiar with the basic subjects. It also matured my thinking about these being the subjects that should be internalised during one’s studies.”

”The university is a place where you can and must study theory. Theory is not easy to learn when you’re already at work – that is where you learn the practical side of things. I did not want to waste my time at the university on something I would learn better elsewhere.”

Computational mechanics for today and tomorrow

What ended up pulling Valkonen completely into the world of mechanics was a summer job focussed on computational mechanics under the supervision of Assistant Professor Jarkko Niiranen. Valkonen coded his own element for the engineering simulation tool Abaqus, and after the summer stayed on as a part-time employee at the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering. He also started working on his master’s thesis and chose to major in technical mechanics.

”Computational mechanics is a field for the future and computational methods in general are at the core of a 21st-century engineer’s competence. Knowing how to use a tool is part of being a professional, and for today’s engineers that tool is computational mechanics. That is why it should be popularised among students. In a digital world, no company is going to survive without computational expertise.”

Valkonen hopes that computational mechanics could be studied as a major subject at Aalto University, as it provides a solid base for a variety of duties.

“At least one mandatory course on numerical methods should be included in basic studies. Currently, a student can get through basic studies and not know what the finite element method is – you have to take up a personal interest and find out. How can you choose to be interested in something haven’t even heard of?”

Becoming a professional

In the summer following the first year of his studies, Valkonen spent four months working at Rautaruukki’s steel works in Raahe. During his stay, he gained an appreciation for the experience and practical wisdom of the steel workers.

“Working at the rolling mill was a valuable learning experience that opened my eyes to the importance of practical skills. I ended up studying welding at a vocational school alongside my university studies to further develop my engineering expertise.”

“Many celebrated scientists were practicing engineers at the start of their careers, which helped them see scientific problems through the lens of practice. A school will not teach you how to be an engineer. An education is needed, but graduating from university does not make you an engineer. You become one by working, and that is the phase I am at now.”

“I am relieved to have finished my studies. I feel like I have gained an ability comparable to reading, a requirement for further learning. I now have my tools.”

Starting in December, Valkonen will be working at Sweco in their structural analysis department. He is also taking up part-time doctoral studies at the Aalto University Department of Civil Engineering, focussing on the analysis of interactions between water flows and large floating structures.

Antti Valkonen graduated as Master of Science in Technology on 20 September 2016. On 13 December 2016, he received the Award for Excellence in Studies from Dean Gary Marquis of the Aalto University School of Engineering.

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