Out of this World: A Snapshot of APU’s Engineering and Computer Science CubeSat Program

by Peter Cooley

Azusa Pacific University’s Department of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) is dedicated to preparing difference makers in the fields of computer science, computer information systems, and engineering. In 2020, the department launched a CubeSat program, providing students the opportunity to work in teams with peers and faculty mentors to design satellite technology.

“Hands-on research like the CubeSat program gives students practical experience doing the type of work they will experience in their future professions,” said James Johansen, PhD, an assistant ECS professor who helped jumpstart APU's CubeSat program. “With this initiative, we can go beyond the classroom environment, helping students’ education practically align with the expectations they will have from future employers.”

CubeSats are small, 10 cubic centimeter satellites with the same set of features as full-scale satellite systems. In 2021, ECS received a California Space Grant to launch the CubeSat initiative, beginning with the development and deployment of a satellite ground station. With this backing, ECS can receive and process amateur CubeSats that are already in orbit and experimental resources from NASA and NSF. This prepares the way for future CubeSats that APU students and faculty will design and manufacture, to send to space for operation. Engineering alumna Karina Gray, ’22, noted the importance of this project in preparing her to land a career in engineering directly out of college.

“Working on APU’s CubeSat research team provided me with invaluable experience," Gray said. "I had the opportunity to work on both CubeSat and ground station systems, which amplified my passion for communications and consequently helped direct my career path. After graduation, I landed a job working as a systems engineer for L3Harris, an industry leader in global aerospace and defense technology. God is doing great things through APU and this research. I’m so thankful to this program for giving me the opportunity to learn, lead, and grow.”

The project offers immense benefits for students pursuing careers in engineering and computer science. Rather than just learning through lectures and textbooks, students are immersed in practical hands-on research experience. Students work with peers and faculty mentors in teams, learning essential collaborative skills to prepare them for future work. Vazken Avetissian, ’22, a computer science alumnus who worked on the computer software team, spoke about the impact the CubeSat project had. “Through this project, I learned just how important collaboration is between multiple teams, especially in research.”

According to Johansen, these skills are some of the most valuable and relevant traits that employers in the field are looking for. “Effective communication is a sought after skill in the job marketplace,” Johansen said. “With hands-on research, students have a responsibility to communicate and accurately convey information to others. Students think on their feet and develop problem-solving skills. They learn essential leadership skills, and how to work effectively in teams.”

Complementing the practical research experience, the program is centered around APU’s God First mission, integrating faith at every step of the journey. “We educate individuals to have strong ethical and moral Christian character,” said Johansen. “Incorporating spiritual formation in all of our work. Our CubeSat efforts include biblical insight, prayer, ethical evaluation, a focus on service, and a missional context.”

With a growing demand across the globe for computer scientists and engineers, ECS is committed to preparing students to be industry leaders in their fields. With small class sizes, students experience focused and personable teaching from faculty. Professors are personally invested in the success of each student, offering one-on-one academic advising throughout the duration of the program to assist students in gearing their studies toward their passion. These relationships lead to meaningful networking and connections in careers down the road. With ECS alumni currently working at Tesla, Raytheon, Northrop-Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, the Aerospace Corporation, Paypal, YouTube, Google, and more, it is clear that APU students are making a difference in engineering and computer science fields wherever they go.

“Programs like the CubeSat initiative demonstrate APU’s commitment to training service-minded professionals,” Johansen said. “We’re cultivating well-rounded individuals who will perform exceptionally in sought-after occupations and be compensated well for their skills.”

Peter Cooley is a public relations intern in the Division of Strategic Communications and Engagement. He is a music education and honors humanities major, and performs in multiple ensembles at APU. Outside of work, Peter enjoys reading, hiking, and playing music.