Engineering Student Groups Make Their Own Chances

Student clubs give participants a taste of what it means to work together on a complicated and multifaceted design project

By Kalyna Hennig Epp

June 24, 2022 •

Engineering clubs are created by students and for students. They provide a sandbox that lets future engineers make new things, sometimes starting with mistakes. COVID put the clubs in jeopardy, but they are coming back strong and punching above their weight. 


“It's not something that you expect a group of students to take on because of the technical complexity,” says Thomas Ganley, an engineering physics student and member of the club AlbertaSat. 

The “something” he’s talking about is creating Alberta’s second ever satellite, Ex-Alta 2, and preparing it for launch in early 2023. 

The group working on the Ex-Alta 2 comprises as many as 100 students at varying commitment levels. They are bringing the processes, training, leadership and network of a small professional engineering company to bear. And that’s sort of the point. “Tech and technology development, debugging, working through problems, designing or planning the various phases of a mission gives you skills that are really useful once you graduate and get out into industry,” says Ganley, who is the project manager.

Oh, and that satellite they built? It has real-world implications too. Ex-Alta 2 (part of a group of satellites) is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in January 2023 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. From there, it will deploy into orbit, where it will monitor Earthly wildfires, wildfire risk zones and post-burn areas.

AlbertaSat isn’t the only sandbox for students to play in, where they can develop the skills to make a difference.

On the racetrack

Other student clubs, like EcoCar, take on equally massive projects. EcoCar designs, manufactures and then races a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle every year at the Shell Eco-marathon. Clubs give students spaces 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. “So with EcoCar, a huge focus is hands-on experience. If you want to design something, design it. And after you manufacture it, you’re probably going to find it didn’t meet your expectations. But you’re going to make mistakes, learn and get better.”

In the process, 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 globe to design, build and drive energy-efficient vehicles. But it was touch and go for a minute.

Clubs, interrupted

From March 2020 until February 2021, like everything else, engineering clubs moved online. Pivoting to a design-only focus, they were forced to manage project delays while actively losing members and struggling to find new students to fill the gaps. Plus, the EcoCar competition moved to the virtual space — not quite as fun as racing a car you built with your bare hands.

“A big draw for us is being able to give students hands-on experience on certain types of machinery or welding or carbon fiber manufacturing,” says Khan. “It was tough to keep them around without that.”

With attention spans elsewhere, the groups’ funding suffered too. “EcoCar started to see its corporate sponsorship quiet down at the beginning of COVID,” says Khan. 

AlbertaSats membership fell during the pandemic. “We have an obligation to the Canadian Space Agency to fulfill, and the work has to get done,” says Ganley. And those experiences affect students beyond university. 

In the real world

“I think of my job as EcoCar, but in real life,” says Aishwarya Venkitachalam, ’20 BSc(MecEng), EcoCar alumna and current mechanical design engineer at Tesla. “I’m doing similar things at Tesla now, just at a much higher magnitude.”

Venkitachalam, who served in various roles in EcoCar from 2016 through 2020, vividly remembers the commute from her co-op work placement back to campus to work long nights at the club. But the experience allowed her to explore her creativity and made her confident when choosing a career in mechanical design. “My internships and my career couldn't have happened without EcoCar,” Venkitachalam says. “Clubs give you what companies are looking for — not a surface understanding of concepts, but a solid understanding that comes from practice. You will carry the experience throughout your career.”


Student project clubs, including EcoCar, AlbertaSat and others, give students opportunities to hone their skills and prepare them for their careers. Many of these clubs (see the ones listed below) are generously supported thanks to the Spirit of George Ford Endowment Fund, founded in memory of the U of A’s Dr. George Ford.

Go Deeper

Engineering student project clubs at the U of A

The university has lots of project clubs and most consider themselves multidisciplinary. They need technical experts, of course, and other students are involved in communications, media, promotions and fundraising. Here are a few of them:

Aerial Robotics Group (UAARG): Designs and develops autonomous aircraft for student competitions, where it performs a full flight demonstration.

Aero Design: Designs and builds a fixed-wing, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of carrying and delivering payload by remote-control. 

Albertaloop: Aims to to drive the realization of hyperloop through research, community outreach and competitions.

AlbertaSat: Designs, builds, tests, launches and operates cube satellites. 

Autonomous Robotic Vehicle Project (ARVP): Designs, builds and competes aquatic robots.

Biomedical Technologies Development Group: Aims to create solutions in medicine, engineering and science. Currently working on an exoskeleton.

EcoCar: Designs and builds hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for international efficiency competitions.

Engineers In Action: Works with under-served communities in Bolivia, creating access to resources and economic opportunities by building footbridges over impassable rivers. 

Formula Racing (Society of Automotive Engineers): Designs and builds a race car to compete at the world’s largest engineering competition series. 

Future Creators: Students offer an engineering-based workshop and mentorship series for students in Grades 7 to 12. 

Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race (GNCTR): Has been pushing and stretching the limitations of concrete vehicles since the inception of the competition in 1974. 

Renewable Energy Design: Spreads awareness about the importance of green energy both for the environment and the economy.

RoboMaster Robotic Competition Team: Designs and builds robots for two yearly international robotic competitions.

Space Exploration Alberta Robotics (SPEAR): Promotes space exploration technology and robotics through educational outreach.

Student Team for Alberta Rocketry Research (STARR): Aims to expand Alberta’s space industry through the development, testing and launching of high altitude sounding rockets.

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