Changemaker: Jake Puzycki

  • Maker Educator and Robotics Instructor, MetWest High School (Oakland, CA)
  • M.Eng., Technical Entrepreneurship, Lehigh University, 2015
  • B.A., Physics, Lehigh University, 2014
TE enabled me to see how I could tap into the most powerful parts of myself to bring about change in my world.
-Jake Puzycki

Jake Puzycki has a long-standing vision:  he wants to help transform the educational system in this country to create a more relevant experience for students. Now, having earned his master’s degree in Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) at Lehigh, he’s prepared to put his ideas in motion.

Why did you decide to enroll in Lehigh's TE program?

As I neared the end of my undergraduate years, I was a finalist for a Fulbright, hoping to teach English in Nepal. I didn't get it, but even before I knew the outcome, I had decided that I wanted to get more hands-on entrepreneurial experience so I would feel confident as a change agent in my community. I also wanted an advanced degree that would push me forward professionally. TE fit the bill.

In what ways did the experience live up to your expectations?

It was actually different than I expected, but definitely one of the best educational experiences I've ever had. TE was an amazing use of time, and I got a major rush out of being in Wilbur Powerhouse until 4:00 in the morning working on a project. I loved the program and appreciate the skills that I developed during that year.

So what skills did you develop in TE?

Where should I start? I deepened my understanding of problem solving and prototyping, for example, and I developed more technical skills while working with Adobe Illustrator, 3D modeling programs, and the laser cutter.

How did your mindset evolve as a result of your year in TE?

TE emphasized the importance of looking at things from the customer's perspective and of validating any assumptions made about products and services. By the end of the year, this was deeply ingrained in me and very much a part of my operating style. I also acquired more of an "I can do this" mindset.

Are there any particular projects you worked on that were especially meaningful for you?

I'd have to say that my most memorable experience involved using a laser cutter to make a 6'2" replica of Han Solo out of 350 stacked slices of cardboard. That was extremely cool. It moved me toward the new "can do" mentality that I mentioned earlier. In the world of physics, my undergrad major, everything was theoretical; little was hands-on. TE is way different. I loved being able to say "I made this!" It was very empowering. I now try to bring this level of excitement to my students every day.

How did you benefit from Lehigh's Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation?

I participated in the Baker Institute's annual Eureka! Ventures Competition as an undergrad and as a grad student, and I came in second both times. Also, I was part of a team of three that took first place in the Global Problem Solving Competition held during the fall of my TE year.

What did you do immediately after receiving your M.Eng. in TE?

I launched a startup, Connect Forward, that actually grew out of the Startup Weekend event that occurs every year within the TE program. Connect Forward was like a LinkedIn network that connected high school students with working professionals. The goal was to help students explore career paths by exposing them to the stories, insights, and experiences of real people working in the industry. I started it during TE and ran it for six months after graduating. Unable to pull together the team I needed to make it work, I eventually shuttered the venture and got involved in innovative school systems.

What are you doing now?

I serve as Maker Educator and Robotics Instructor at MetWest High School in Oakland, California. It is a truly unique public high school where students are out in professional internships twice a week instead of being in class. When they are in class, students are exposed to a curriculum that is project based and centered around an oppression-liberation framework. They learn to become change agents in their community.

How did your TE degree help you to obtain this position?

TE taught me the importance of persistence and networking. Both played a major role in landing this position.

I was looking for a teaching position that would allow me to see how an innovative school could function and give me the freedom to try innovative practices and test what education could look like in my classroom. Determined to find such an opportunity, I started exploring innovative school systems and drove up to Rhode Island one day to tour "The Met," the flagship school for Big Picture Learning.

Big Picture Learning is a non-profit that supports a network of about 80 innovative schools across the country, and I met one of Big Picture's co-executive directors. We connected over the ways science education could be integrated into the Big Picture model, and he forwarded my goals and resume to the principals of every school in the network, including MetWest. His recommendation pushed me through the initial steps of the interview process and, in the end, positioned me to get the job. I owe my job to his recommendation and to the meaningful networking that led me to him in the first place.

What are your responsibilities?

I teach a maker physics class, technically as a professor, since my M.Eng. in TE qualifies me to teach in California community colleges. I also teach a robotics class in which students are doing everything from building drones and to programming robotic cars. In addition, I co-direct the maker space where students create all kinds of things. One of their current projects is building a 12' laser-cut dragon out of stacked cardboard – my way of paying homage to the Han Solo project in TE!

How have you applied your new mindset and new skills since receiving your degree?

I've been using both as I explore the educational infrastructure. If I really want to make a change in education, I need to understand how all the parts work. This job is giving me the chance to experience all the different parts of the educational ecosystem and to understand why things are the way they are. I now have a much better sense of why reform in education is so difficult and thus am better positioned to make a difference.

Do you have any long-term career goals that you would want to share?

In three to five years, I hope to have helped start my own school, although I'm still figuring out what that needs to look like. And in 10 years, I hope to be working on a larger scale to help shift the educational infrastructure that affects all our kids. Our educational system in the United States is basically the same as it was 200 years ago. It is still laden with social injustice and ignores the role that changing technology is playing in our world on a daily basis. We need a school system that supports the needs of every student, preparing them with the skills needed to be successful in this century.

How would you sum up the return on your investment in the TE degree?

I think many people would talk about the ROI of the TE degree in terms of money they will be making off it in years to come – which is considerable. If I wanted to, I could use this degree to launch another startup, contribute to someone else's startup, or score a big job at IBM. My peers have done all these things and more.

For me, though, the ROI is much different. I left TE believing that I could do anything I set my mind to, and I still feel that way. I have every confidence that my career will be spent doing something I love and that my professional legacy will be a strong and meaningful one. I believe that I can be a powerful agent of change in my world, and TE played a big part in that. In my mind, that's the greatest gift a program can give a student...and I am so, so grateful.