Mentoring a HS Satellite Team

For the past two years, I have been a mentor at a local high school dedicated to aviation and space. As a mentor, I meet with my students once a month (or so). We usually just talk; I have two students and they always have things to say to one another about teachers and classes. Sometimes it’s hard to re-direct the conversation. However, when we go somewhere, it has been even more rewarding. I was able to introduce one of my mentees to the chief engineer of a company that he would like to intern for. I also showed two mentees around the building at my previous position. It has been fun, but the best parts were always getting them involved in my work or me getting involved in theirs. I wanted more of this interaction.

Then a team of freshman and the school principal started a team dedicated to building a 1U CubeSat, a 10 cm squared satellite.

I was wary at first, meeting with them once early in 2015. It seemed like a great group, but they were a bit lost in all the research that they needed to complete. I was too busy with working on commercial CubeSat launch campaigns to be a real asset at that point. So, when I did return to the CubeSat team, after quitting my full-time job, I was pleasantly surprised. The freshman had become more confident sophomores and started putting a real team together.

Now I visit them once a week to mentor. It’s been a bit difficult to find my place. Their principal has this amazing hands-off approach. I found it impressive that he dedicates himself to getting resources for them, but doesn’t manage much at all. Therefore, I wanted to emulate his approach. I tried to let students come to me with questions and I occasionally visited with different groups, peppering them with questions. I felt like I was helping, but it was hard to see any change.

Then, two weeks ago, the students began asking me for help. Ah ha! I was not managing, but now I could provide technical expertise within their management structure. Suddenly, I felt free to make suggestions (not demands) about how to move forward.

The first student to approach me was asking about the schedule. Our discussion evolved into an explanation of systems engineering and its purpose. I explained that systems engineers help the technical interactions between groups and make sure that everything is lining up correctly (which seemed schedule-related). It seemed like a good job for him, since he wanted a technical position but hadn’t been made lead of any group. We talked it over with the personnel manager (yes, another sophomore) and it was done! We had an official systems engineer (and me, of course).

Then I started explaining requirements to him. We went through the CubeSat Design Specification, which has spells out everything that a CubeSat team needs to do to fit within a P-Pod and get through a typical rocket safety process. We went through about 3 requirements before I saw the light bulb in his head. This is a lot of work – was the light bulb. I felt like I finally imparted the true scale of the project. It was a bit hard because I don’t want to destroy their dreams, but I want them to see how much they will really be doing. He got it – and helping him get there is one of the best feelings in the world to me.

I repeated this approach (going over requirements) with another student this week. Same light bulb! Now there are two people in the group of thirty that have a good idea of the scope of the project.

In summary, working with this high school CubeSat team has already been so rewarding to me. I love working with people to develop a deeper understanding of a topic. I always learn something too. (For example, I cannot explain what “ground” is in electrical engineering – further research required). This project has, in a way, re-kindled my love of tutoring. Once the holidays are over, I plan to market myself as a science and English tutor. I want more light bulb moments.

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