Taking advantage of opportunities to get hands-on research experience can improve students' standing in the job market.

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Avery Brock is a tinkerer.

He’s been playing with circuit boards and soldering irons since he started building model trains with his dad as a child.

“Playing with electronics and building stuff — it’s what I do for fun and hopefully it’s going to be my career,” Brock says.

The 21-year-old University of Idaho electrical engineering major from Redmond, Washington, has since upgraded his hobby, but still tinkers in his dorm room and in the university’s engineering laboratories.

For engineering students like Brock, having hands-on research experience can improve their standing in the job market, says John Crepeau, associate dean for undergraduates in U of I’s College of Engineering.

“Engineers plan, build and test their designs for a living so it’s important for undergraduates to have that opportunity in school,” Crepeau says. “Senior capstone projects like those at U of I offer students the opportunity to work with industrial partners and create products that meet their specifications. And students often get hired on by their industrial partners after graduation.”

Access to undergraduate research clinched Brock’s decision to come to U of I. During a campus visit, he toured U of I’s engineering labs and met with a number of faculty.

“It was a really friendly experience, and it was really nice being able to say, ‘OK, this is the person I’m going to interact with for the next four years,’” Brock says.

He threw himself into his research from the beginning, even participating as a freshman on a project to design a refueling device for fuel cell cars. During a campus presentation, SpaceX co-founder and U of I alumnus Tom Mueller wanted to know more.

“He came and stopped and talked to me for probably a solid half hour about the project. He was interested in it because SpaceX was trying to do a similar thing for generating fuel on Mars,” Brock says.

Brock and four teammates are now working on a NASA-funded project that will improve the data exchange between small satellites and researchers on the ground. These small research satellites communicate with Earth through text messages, and the team is designing a piece of hardware that will provide a full internet connection between the satellites and researchers for the first time.

“We’re kind of going from like a very basic text messaging plan to an internet connection,” Brock says.

Avery Brock and four teammates are working on a NASA-funded project that will improve the data exchange between small satellites and researchers on the ground. (University of Idaho)
Avery Brock and four teammates are working on a NASA-funded project that will improve the data exchange between small satellites and researchers on the ground. (University of Idaho)

Their work will drastically cut the cost of small satellite communication, lowering the barrier for researchers working in space. It’s not Brock’s first time working on satellites; during the summer after his sophomore year, he helped design two — now orbiting — satellites during an internship with NASA’s Ames Research Center.

His team is even designing transport pods, roughly the size of 2-liter pop bottles, which can safely carry samples from the International Space Station to Earth. In time, they could even be used to transport very small rovers to Mars’ surface. Brock would like to test the tubes in the campus wind tunnel before performing low-level drop tests from buildings and high-altitude weather balloon testing.

“Senior design projects like this help students develop skills they can’t learn in the classroom,” says U of I Assistant Professor Feng Li, adviser for Brock’s team. “They improve their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities and learn to balance independence and collaboration — all skills necessary to work on a team.”

Brock, who will graduate in spring 2019, and his teammates will present their project at the College of Engineering Design EXPO, the longest-running student engineering innovation showcase in the Pacific Northwest. Held each April, students present projects that push the boundaries of science and technology. EXPO is part of U of I’s Innovation Month, a series of events that showcase the pioneering achievements of Vandal students.

“It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to finish a yearlong project and have the opportunity to present your work to both your peers and industry to show off what you know and how far you have come since starting on the engineering path,” Brock says. “EXPO is how I got my start in aerospace, and I am looking forward to showing where it has taken me.”

The University of Idaho is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its campus in Moscow, U of I serves Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus 42 county Extension offices.