As they watched Kenyan community members search the Internet for the first time, three University graduates learned there is nothing more satisfying than impacting the lives of others through one’s own hard work.

Last November, three graduate students from the College of Engineering traveled to remote locations in Kenya to establish Internet connections using their own satellite-system designs.

The trip was the result of the work done by 25 students in the aerospace system design classes taught by Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of aerospace engineering and atmospheric, oceanic and space science. In the classes, students were challenged to design a satellite-based system that would bring Internet to rural parts of the world.

Kelly Moran, who graduated in December with an Engineering master’s degree, was among those who ventured to Kenya.

She said the class first focused on all areas around the world in need of the Internet but eventually centered its attention on Africa.

“We focused a lot on the ground system, how we could design a low-cost system that’s very easy to deploy, easy to transport and simple to use,” Moran said.

While the students never imagined their designs would be applied to real-life scenarios, last summer the program’s sponsor, Google, decided to turn their prototype into reality.

Moran said after hearing about Google’s plans to finance their trip to Kenya, “we were just blown away, we couldn’t believe it.”

Once they knew their systems would be used, Moran said real-life conditions like heat and dust had to be taken into consideration.

Moran said the Kenyan communities they helped received them with open arms. She added that as she and her team entered a site, residents would run alongside the trucks and offer to help with the assembly process.

“They were really eager, really excited and really happy,” she said. “They thanked us over and over.”

Joan Ervin, a graduate of the College of Engineering, also traveled to Kenya.

“You could feel that they understood that this could really change their lives,” Ervin said. “They wanted to learn how to do everything for themselves.”

Trisha Donajkowski, a fellow graduate of the College of Engineering and the third of the trio to go to Kenya, said the system is comprised of a satellite dish, a solar panel, batteries and electronics that manage the modem and wireless router. She added that the system is operated by a combination of solar energy and battery power to account for the many locations without electricity.

Ervin said the system works by transmitting a signal from the computer to a satellite dish. The satellite dish then relays the signal to a ground station in Europe where the desired information is retrieved and sent back to Africa via the satellite.

“Basically we are bypassing all the infrastructure that is usually required,” Zurbuchen said.

He said the system was installed to create a type of Internet café, where community members could gather to surf the Web.

Since the engineers left Kenya in November, Moran said “everything is really working well. They really haven’t had many major problems that we’ve heard of.”

She said government officials are able to use the Internet to send documents faster than in the past. She added that citizens have utilized the Internet to learn about education, obtaining a visa, agriculture and disease prevention.

All the students involved agreed that connecting Kenyans to the rest of the world through products of their own labor was a life-changing experience.

“I guess just my favorite thing was just that I could do something that I love,” Donajkowski said. “I could apply engineering in a way that seemed like it mattered.”

Ervin said the experience has made her realize what kind of work she wants to do in the future.

“I think all of us are excited that we got to work on something that we actually went and built and implemented it and saw the effects of our work,” she said. “It got us all fired up about doing something similar in the future.”

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