Better golfing, happy cats, electronic music: A look at 3 students' electronic innovations

Projects see students combine personal interests with hands-on learning

There are rules around the fourth-term projects that Electronics Engineering Technology (EET) students need to complete as part of their program but, with respect to creativity, few restrictions.

For example, the ideas can't be too simple (as determined by an instructor). They need to show that students have not just learned the fundamentals of electronics but that they can use and adapt them in innovative ways.

But the projects also need to be reasonable enough (also as determined by an instructor) to be completed in 15 weeks – on top of other coursework. And they have to incorporate a digital microcontroller that can be programmed to accomplish some sort of task.

Other than that, however, students are encouraged to allow their personal interests to inspire them.

“Our program really appeals to the makers of the world – the people who like to tinker and build things,” says instructor Cory Thorp (EET '16), who oversees the projects.

By going through the often demanding motions of conceiving, planning and producing their own electronic inventions, Thorp says students gain three important things that will benefit them in careers to come:

  1. Confidence – “I really want them to be able to have confidence that they can build something. I want them to know that they can take something from an idea to a finished thing.”
  2. Documentation skills – Thorp also wants students to understand how to professionally document their work and progress – an invaluable skill in their careers to come.
  3. Evidence of success – “I want them to have something more than just the piece of paper at the end,” Thorp says. It might be something they use, or that helps others, or that they can simply show a prospective employer.

What exactly is that something? “That's where the creativity comes in,” says Thorp.

This spring we attended the semiannual EET project showcase to see how the creativity of three students is preparing them as designers, project managers, builders, and maybe even some of the most practical dreamers that industry could hope for.

Learn about what you can do with an Electronics Engineering Technology diploma

Lightening the load on the links

photo of nait student parker selte with a motorized golf cart he madeParker Selte (EET ’24) wants to make golf, and what he sees as the therapeutic value of chasing a little white ball across several kilometres of lawn, more accessible.

Before the pandemic, the 20-year-old played hockey and baseball, sports COVID wasn’t kind to. But golf, which he’d previously dabbled in, resumed quicker in comparison, offering an opportunity to be athletic with others, in the relative safety of the open air.

“I didn't really have anything to do,” says Selte. “So I started golfing and never looked back.”

Inspired by the benefits of a walk and talk on the links, Selte focused his project on enhancing access to the sport.

He fitted a manual pull-cart with a motor and gears, and a microcontroller so it can be controlled with a remote. It runs on a typical cordless drill battery and folds for easy transport. It’s even GPS enabled to show a player just how good their walk was.

Selte acknowledges that such products already exist. His, however, is made of components bought online for far less than units currently on the market.

“I can make it a lot more affordable and accessible … just by manufacturing everything by myself and choosing parts that aren't as expensive,” he says.

photo of a folded motorized golf cart made by a nait electronics engineering technology student

The cart can be improved in ways Selte wasn’t able to complete during the 15-week term. One is for the unit to follow the golfer automatically, tethered to the user’s phone by Bluetooth. While retrofitting golf carts wasn’t covered by EET, Selte feels he has the skills to take his machine into what he calls the “upper echelon” of golf equipment.

Now hoping to return to NAIT this fall to add an instrumentation diploma to his education, Selte feels the modification would be par for the course. “It would just take time,” he says.

The people-friendly pet feeder

photo of nait electronics engineering technology grad morgan wietzel

It’s not just robotics that have interested Morgan Wietzel (EET ’24) since she was a kid. It’s “the idea of building things to help improve people's lives.”

That’s why Wietzel would like to apply her skills to fields such as automation or health care. In the meantime, however, she’s directed them toward supporting mental health – particularly those who lean on the company of cats to keep their spirits up.

photo of automatic cat feeder made by a nait electronics engineering technology gradOne of those people is Wietzel’s 90-year-old grandmother, who still lives at home on the farm. “She has cats and loves them a lot,” says Wietzel, “but she has a lot of mobility issues.”

Wietzel felt that some of her grandmother’s issues could be addressed with an automated cat feeder. Like Selte’s golf cart, these exist, too. But Wietzel feels they tend to be overly complicated.

That’s why her EET project, the programmable “Lazy Cat Feeder,” features just three buttons: one to clear the selected feeding time, one to change it, and one to lock it in.

LED lights on the casing (which Wietzel designed and 3D printed) also indicate the amount of food it contains: green for good, yellow for good enough, and red to warn against the potential of a hangry feline.

Wietzel is continuing to refine the unit before presenting it to her grandma (she’d like it to run on batteries, for example, rather than on an outlet as it does now). But she feels that she’s on her way to a device that could improve life for more than just kitty.

“Especially for seniors, that bond is really important,” says Wietzel.

Building the feeder has been important to her as well. Now 20 years old and considering her career options, she marvels at how far she’s come since those extra-curricular robotics courses in high school.

“The amount I’ve learned is insane,” says Wietzel. “If I talked to myself two years ago and told me what I did [today], I would not believe me.”

The synthesized sound of music

photo of nait electronics engineering technology grad bryce mckay

Bryce McKay (EET ’24) never expected he’d enroll in post-secondary education. He’d been working construction without giving much thought to the future. But he was interested in music. A guitarist since childhood, he’d begun experimenting with electronic music, picking up a couple of synthesizers and becoming fascinated by them.

Playing them wasn’t enough. He wanted to know how they worked. How did they reshape sound? “I was like, ‘What is a square wave?’” McKay says. “What is a sawtooth wave? What does a filter actually do to the signal?”

McKay knew that EET wouldn’t cover the esoteric world of electronic sound. But when he realized that post-secondary was the best way to learn the fundamentals of the technology, the NAIT program was music to his ears.

photo of synthesizer made by a NAIT electronics engineering technology gradEven before being accepted to the program, McKay planned to build his own synthesizer – but using analog components instead of digital, as early commercial models did decades ago.

“I like old stuff,” says the 24-year-old. “My favourite band of all time is Pink Floyd.”

In 15 weeks, McKay built a working device, even making it compatible with equipment on the market. He’s also using it in his own music.

While McKay’s electronics were physical components such as oscillators, amplifiers and filters (he used a microcontroller to play a tune reminiscent of the Stranger Things theme song), he believes the approach gave him invaluable insight into troubleshooting electronic devices in general.

It’s also given him an advantage in the job market. Upon meeting an employer from a local audio-visual company at that EET showcase, McKay was offered a job. Today, he’s a field installation technician, handling on-site system set ups.

“For a first job out of school it's something that I enjoy,” says McKay. It’s also part of a future he’s now actively thinking about. One day, he’d like to have his own electronics repair shop, with a focus on electric instruments and amplifiers, a market he sees as underserved in Edmonton.

In particular, he’d like to ensure that older equipment keeps on making music.

“There's just so much of that vintage stuff out there still,” says McKay. “People are not wanting to give it up.”

Once a tinkerer, always a tinkerer

Though now retired, former Electronics Engineering Technology instructor Bob Found (EET ’81, Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’87) is still building electronics-based projects – among the most recent being a robotic, 1/4 scale model of NASA’s Perseverance rover that’s currently exploring Mars.

The project took roughly four months and involved 153 plastic parts made on two 3D printers that whirred away for a month, 18 hours a day. The motorized model runs on old laptop batteries and is controlled by a remote typically used for flying drones. It even has a camera that sends images back to Found on a display he wears on his wrist.

“There’s no particular purpose for that,” he says. “It’s just cool.”

Is there a purpose for building the rover itself (along with numerous other pet projects)?

“Learning,” says Found, with enthusiasm.

Now 75 years old, he’s still using his NAIT education as the foundation for new skills and knowledge. “It taught me the ‘basics’ in a number of different ways: theory, troubleshooting, electronic design, teamwork,” says Found. But his rover project has since added to that by teaching him how to work with a drone controller, to use a 3D printer, and to use motors in a large project.

To help others enjoy a similar life of learning, Found has established two bursaries – one in each program he took – dedicating them to instructors who made an impact on his career. Preference is given to students who are Black, Indigenous or Persons of Colour.

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