student creating a time-lapse camera

ASU students channel MacGyver to solve science, engineering problems


Nikki Cassis

What could you do with some scavenged supplies from the local convenience store? Create an autonomous time-lapse camera, of course.

At least, that's what graduate student Mike Veto did. He and eight other Arizona State University students participated in an experimental seminar devised to bring back the problem-solving spirit while training a new generation of hybrid scientist-engineers. 

The class, called Field Engineering seminar, was offered during the spring semester to students in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. It’s taught by Andrew Klesh, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission architect and ASU adjunct faculty member.

Klesh unofficially refers to the class as “MacGyver 101,” referring to the 1980s TV secret agent with the sweet mullet who could solve any problem with common items like duct tape, gum, a paperclip and his scientific genius.

One of the challenges the students were tasked with was building an autonomous time-lapse camera – from a remote-control "Bob the Builder" toy tractor and a disposable 35mm camera.

“The idea is that you can buy a toy at your nearest gas station out in the field and crack it open to find the necessary electronic and mechanical components to solve a problem,” Veto said.

In the class, students participated in a number of lectures and labs, each building on previous lessons and all designed to cross-train scientists and engineers in basic skills – chemistry, geology, electronics, troubleshooting – so that they can pull off miracles in the field when something breaks down, or when they forget that one important instrument.

“There were not very many instructions or guidance, which was very exciting because it emulates the real-world, in-the-field experience," Veto said. "You're given a problem and you just have to figure out how to solve it. There are no instructions."

The class focuses on real-world experiences and problems, and it is designed to both illustrate realistic field scenarios.

Throughout the course, students pulled from their own experience to educate others on field-specific skills (sampling at a volcano, geologic sampling, how to make a field radio, how to signal for help, etc.).

“The entire class, myself included, was learning from each other, similar to how skills are shared amongst a team in the field,” Klesh said. “A great scientist-engineer needs to apply that MacGyver-esque mind-set of being flexible and making do with limited resources.”

The class began by learning what resources and problems might be encountered in a small electronic vehicle, and ended with having to use these parts in the invention of a field instrument.

At this point, there is no website or program description for the Field Engineering seminar, as it's not an official course. NASA/JPL supported this trial course through their Center for Academic Partnership program, with the hope that this course will better educate students for future field work, creating desirable candidates for JPL positions.