How Joining a Student Team Transformed My Mechanical Engineering Undergrad Experience

Mechanical Engineering undergraduate student Ethan shares how joining the AlbertaSat student team provide him with opportunities for real-world experience.


After the successful launch of Alberta’s first space satellite, the Ex-Alta 1, in 2017, AlbertaSat students are designing, building, and operating a cube satellite that will be launched in 2022 to study forest fires and space weather.

When I started in the mechanical engineering program at the U of A in 2018, I was prepared for a heavy academic workload without a ton of hands-on experience. Though the academic portion of my studies has been as intense as I imagined, the amount of applicable skills I have gained through experiential learning during my time with the AlbertaSat student group has surpassed my expectations greatly. I never planned on joining any extra-curricular groups during my undergraduate studies; I always thought it would steal too much focus away from my classes and I wouldn’t have enough time to handle all of the tasks and deadlines. However, after I joined AlbertaSat, I quickly saw the value in the work that I had an opportunity to do, and I knew right away that this was going to be a monumental step into my future. 

The initial projects I worked on as an AlbertaSat mechanical team member gave me a chance to further develop my 3D modelling skills to help solve issues with the computer model of our satellite. I also had an opportunity to spearhead the procurement and assembly of the prototypes of our miniature antenna hinges that are going to be mounted to the satellite. As classes transitioned from in-person to online last year, I was worried that all of my work with AlbertaSat would be over. However, I’ve had a plethora of opportunities to continue to apply my time in a practical and meaningful way, all while learning a bunch of new skills. Right now, I’m working on the manufacturing and assembly of a prototype of our satellite’s structure. Thanks to the Elko Engineering Garage on campus, I’ve had access to a CNC milling machine where I’ve learned how to machine small aluminum components. I’ve already learned a lot about the intricacies of machining, and I’ve been able to apply this knowledge to the design aspect of the parts I’m making. Learning how to design a theoretical part and how to 3D model it is one thing, but designing a part with a specific machining process is a completely different challenge. This opportunity has broadened my design skills and will definitely stick with me as I move into my career. 

I’ve also had the chance to assemble a satellite testing pod, designed by the Canadian Space Agency, for use in our upcoming vibration testing at a third-party facility in Calgary. One of the biggest challenges so far has been understanding the various torque and other fastener specifications that are required for a structure with such rigorous tolerances. This has been another great occasion to use some of the information I’ve recently learned in my third-year design course and instantly apply it to a real-world application. 

Working on these projects has also given me an appreciation for the amount of money it takes to create highly detailed components. From the cost of the stock metal to the complex tools required for assembly, the budget of building a satellite can grow exponentially. With the aid of outside partners such as The Spirit of George Ford Endowment Fund, we can afford to experiment and learn from our prototypes, which results in a better final product. We will also use the funding to invest in our final flight hardware which will end up orbiting above our heads within the next year. Without AlbertaSat, I know that some of the critical education that I’ve received would not have stuck with me as well as it has because of this experiential learning opportunity. Thanks to the help of the Spirit of George Ford Endowment Fund, I’ve been able to undertake the most meaningful adventure of my academic career so far. 

Help fuel the future generation of engineers and support experiential learning opportunities like this one.


About Ethan

Ethan Ledig is in his third year of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta. He's been a member of the AlbertaSat student group for more than a year, first as a member of the mechanical team, and now on the systems engineering team to help get a satellite ready for the launch date in early 2022.