How do you get kids to look at the world differently? For a team of engineers working across Colombia, the answer is to teach them about space. Funded through a US$5,000 grant from Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) in IEEE, a team affiliated with the IEEE EDS Colombia Chapter is developing satellites that will monitor meteorological and water conditions in the region. A primary purpose of the project is to educate volunteers and students about the different technologies involved in building satellites. The hope is that primary schools, universities, and community teachers find interest in space education for STEM learning purposes.

Spearheaded by IEEE Senior member and IEEE Electron Devices Society (EDS) Colombia Chapter Chair, Camilo Téllez Villamizar, the team is currently developing three different CanSat prototypes under the project name MALLKU. CanSats, aptly named, are satellites integrated within the volume and shape of a soft drink can and suitable for the exploration of remote environments, space education, and the development of new technologies. MALLKU is an indigenous deity from the Quechua language, and its translation is “the high-rise lord” in reference to the abilities of the CanSats. For the project, Villamizar is guiding three teams led by Andrés Felipe Guarnizo, Giovanna Estefanía Ramirez Ruiz, and Camilo Andrés Segura. Each team aims to explore how to develop CanSat products with an agile, fast, and mass-production approach.

“While our focus is product development, our main purpose is education. Teaching volunteers and kids about technology like communication, electronics, microcontrollers, and 3D printing provides them with new ways to look at the world,” said Camilo Andrés Segura. While participating in the MALLKU program, students learn the concept of satellites through different STEM activities. They also learned about the basics of 3D printing and design tools. 

An important goal is to “share knowledge with future generations and motivate them to study STEM areas,” said Ramirez. “We want to understand how kids learn—and space is interesting to kids, so we saw an opportunity to give them an introduction to CanSat technology,” Segura noted. The students also learned about environmental topics and global warming—and how to use technology to create solutions to world problems. “Hopefully, we are building bridges that will help the students get into university,” added Segura.

Similarly, for Andrés Felipe Guarnizo—who led the investigation group for his team—the project’s biggest success has been the opportunity to share knowledge and teach students how to design concepts. The investigation group spent time designing (and redesigning) the structure for models—which allowed the students to practice with 3D materials through field tests. “I think the integration between different technology majors and careers—electronic engineers, environmental engineers, system engineers—is very important. It shows that there are different ways to learn and innovate,” said Guarnizo, who is currently working on an IEEE journal article about the project. That sentiment is shared by Ramirez, who said one of the most important takeaways of the project has been “shared teamwork with physicists, engineers, and architects and the participation in different knowledge sets.” 

Villamizar noted collaboration as vital to all three teams’ success. Working with multiple universities and localities, plus as is the case for Ramirez—the Colombian aerospace program, has its challenges. Originally approved for funding by EPICS in IEEE more than two years ago, the team experienced problems with the COVID-19 pandemic and rural-area logistics. By partnering with IEEE Region 9 (Latin America), the Colombia chapter of the IEEE EDS Society, and of course EPICS in IEEE, they were able to work through any delays. 

Now that all three teams are through the design and prototype phase of the project, they will start the product tuning phase, which requires having the students build the actual CanSats, before testing later in 2022. The team members acknowledged and thanked the EPICS in IEEE program for giving students in Colombia the opportunity to explore and learn in different and more productive ways. “IEEE support has made a huge impact for our students and community,” noted the MALLKU team members.