Engineering clubs are formed by students and for students. They provide a sandbox in which future engineers can do new things, sometimes starting with bugs. COVID-19 has put clubs in jeopardy but they are coming back strong and hitting beyond their weight.
“Due to the technical complexity, you don’t expect a group of students to deal with it,” says Thomas Ganley, an engineering physics student and member of the AlbertaSat Club.
The “something” he’s talking about is creating Alberta’s second satellite, Ex-Alta 2, and preparing for launch in early 2023.
The group that worked on Ex-Alta 2 included up to 100 students with varying degrees of involvement. They bring to bear the processes, training, leadership and network of a small professional engineering firm. And that’s sort of the point. “Technology and technology development, debugging, problem solving, design or planning the different phases of a mission give you skills that are really useful once you graduate and enter the industry,” says Ganley, the project manager.
Oh, and that satellite they built? It also has real world implications. Ex-Alta 2 (part of a group of satellites) is scheduled for launch in January 2023 from Cape Canaveral, Florida to the International Space Station. From there it will be sent into orbit where it will monitor terrestrial forest fires, forest fire risk zones and post-fire areas.
AlbertaSat isn’t the only sandbox for students to play in, where they can develop the skills to make a difference.
Other student clubs like EcoCar undertake similarly large projects. EcoCar designs, manufactures and then races a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the Shell Eco-Marathon each year. Clubs give students space to fail (and try again), says mechanical engineering student and EcoCar project manager Rafid Khan.
“A lot of what we do in class is theoretical,” says Khan. “Therefore, at EcoCar there is a big emphasis on hands-on experience. If you want to design something, design it. And after you’ve made it, you’ll probably find that it didn’t live up to your expectations. But you will make mistakes, learn and get better.”
In doing so, the students also contribute to a lower-carbon future. In April 2023, the EcoCar team will compete against hundreds of other student clubs in the Shell Eco-Marathon, which brings together students from around the world to design, build and drive energy-efficient vehicles. But for a minute it was a touch-and-go.
From March 2020 to February 2021, engineering clubs went online like everything else. Focused on a pure design focus, they were forced to manage project delays while actively losing members and striving to find new students to fill the gaps. It also moved the EcoCar competition into virtual space – not quite as fun as racing a car you built with your bare hands.
“A big benefit for us is the ability to give students hands-on experience with specific types of machinery or welding or carbon fiber fabrication,” says Khan. “It was difficult to maintain her without that.”
With attention spans elsewhere, the groups’ funding also suffered. “EcoCar started to see its corporate sponsorship settle down early in COVID,” says Khan.
AlbertaSat’s membership declined during the pandemic. “We have a commitment to the Canadian Space Agency, and the job needs to get done,” says Ganley. And these experiences have an impact on students beyond the university.
“I think about my job as an EcoCar, but in real life,” says Aishwarya Venkitachalam, 20 BSc (MecEng), EcoCar graduate and current mechanical engineer at Tesla. “I’m doing similar things at Tesla now, just on a much larger scale.”
Venkitachalam, who served in various roles at EcoCar from 2016 to 2020, vividly recalls driving back to campus from her co-op internship to work late nights at the club. But the experience allowed her to explore her creativity and gave her confidence when she decided to pursue a career in engineering.
“My internships and my career would not have been possible without EcoCar,” says Venkitachalam. “Clubs give you what businesses are looking for – not a superficial understanding of concepts, but a solid, real-world understanding. You will take the experience with you throughout your career.”
| By Kalyna Hennig Epp
Kalyna is a reporter for the University of Alberta’s online magazine Folio. The University of Alberta is an editorial content partner of Troy Media.
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