When mechanical engineering co-op student Chris Robson joined a student project in his second year at the University of Alberta, he had no idea it would alter the course of his life.
His plan since childhood was to become a robotics engineer. It was a natural conclusion for a boy fascinated by robots, endlessly constructing things with building blocks and robotics kits. An undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering was just the starting point.
Then he encountered , a student group that was building a satellite for a competition called the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge.
“I just thought that sounded really cool, so I joined,” says Robson, who soon became the group’s project manager.
The project ignited the enthusiasm and imagination of everyone involved, each harbouring a dream that one day there would be an aerospace program at the U of A.
Robson’s work on the project allowed him to foster relationships with an interdisciplinary mix of leading thinkers and researchers, including Ian Mann (physics), Carlos Lange (mechanical engineering), Duncan Elliot (electrical engineering) and Dan Sameoto (mechanical engineering).
Being in close contact with faculty advisers allowed him to experiment, to try out designs and plans and bring them to reality. “It was great for bridging the gap between theory and practice.”
The faculty advisers provided guidance and encouragement from the beginning. They’d look over the latest designs and offer suggestions, which the students would go back and work with.
“We kept discovering more things we could do, and we kept evolving,” says Robson.
“Every single day, every single one of us was learning something entirely new. And we could always cross-reference that to something we knew we’d be doing in the future as engineers, or to something we had studied in the past. The project was a major driver of learning that we would never have got in the classroom.”
The AlbertaSat project also gave him real-world career experience as a project manager—first as a volunteer, then through the engineering co-op program. There he discovered and honed his leadership skills, managed timelines and resources, and kept track of many disparate activities at a time.
“Learning how to manage the people was a big part of my job, and it was probably one of the hardest, most valuable life lessons I’ve learned,” he says.
“Because of my experience on AlbertaSat, school just seems easier,” he says. “And all the time we spent learning how to schedule complicated tasks among a group of people … I really learned how to organize my time. There’s so much extra time now.
“Being able to join AlbertaSat is the absolute highlight of my experience at the University of Alberta,” says Robson. “When I started my degree I never imagined I’d being doing anything of this scale. I never thought I’d be building a satellite.”
Robson says AlbertaSat has also helped him discover what he wants to do when he gets out in the world. And to get there, he is determined to pursue a graduate degree in aerospace engineering, focusing on astronautics. With that goal in mind, he recently stepped down as project manager to focus on his final four semesters of undergraduate studies.
“I really want to work in the space industry. And one day I would like to be part of a startup in the space industry. Probably in one of the satellite industries, but… ” Robson pauses, knowing how unexpected opportunities can take things in exciting new directions. “We’ll see what happens.”
Launch pad to leadership
The U of A’s Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology (ISSET) reaches into the lives of students, too.
For recent physics graduate Collin Cupido, ‘14 BSc, ISSET opened up multiple opportunities for him to explore, develop and share his passion for space.
At the end of his second year, Cupido got a summer job working as a camp counsellor for ISSET’s space-themed summer camp for schoolchildren. Through the program, he met Ian Mann, Canada Research Chair in Space Physics and a founding member of ISSET.
Mann gave him a tour of the lab, introduced him to grad students working there and talked about some of their research. That tour opened another door.
“He asked if I’d like to interview with one of his grad students to do research for the summer,” says Cupido. “That was really exciting for me.”
Cupido consequently spent three summers gaining serious undergraduate research experience, and from there, eventually became president of ISSET’s student group. He was also accepted into an ISSET-sponsored program called CaNoRock, an exchange program that allowed him to go to the Andoya Rocket Range in the high Norwegian Arctic, and take part in an intensive week-long course in rocketry.
His work on ISSET Students also brought him into contact with AlbertaSat—a group he joined, later becoming one of the technical leads for the project.
“The outcome of my degree was definitely shaped by the extracurricular things that I was involved in. They had the strongest influence on my direction,” he says.
With his undergraduate degree finished, Cupido says his next steps will involve trying his hand at , and with help from TEC Edmonton, hopefully launching into a new kind of career.
“I won’t be doing grad school for a little while. I want to go out and see what I can do in the entrepreneurial world.”