Over the last three years, more than 100 students from 16 departments and five faculties have been toiling away in a fourth-floor laboratory on the University of Manitoba campus, designing and building a scientific-research satellite.
The students, who also include some Red River College students, spend an average of 10 hours per week working on the project. And in the case of past project lead Dario Schor, it was more like 30 hours per week.
What's remarkable is that all that work has been done on a volunteer basis in their spare time. They don't get paid for it, and they can't even use it as a credit towards obtaining their degree.
So why do they do it? Where's the payoff?
"The payoff is in what they learn," Witold Kinsner, a professor in the U of M's department of electrical and computer engineering, explained in a recent interview.
"They learn to solve problems that are extremely difficult (to solve)."
And those skills will hopefully help them land a job in the aerospace field or a host of other industries, Kinsner added.
"They learn things that can be applied to the automotive industry, to the farm-implements industry, to bus manufacturing, to many, many things," the professor said . "And while there is no formal credit for it, it is quite clear to the good students that their efforts will pay off... because it enables them to get jobs (when they graduate)." That's what happened with Schor, who recently got a job with Magellan Aerospace's Space Systems Group. Schor said he doesn't know for certain if his work on the satellite program was one of the reasons he was hired. But he believes it was a factor.
Diane Kotelko, systems lead for the Space Systems Group, confirmed in an interview that Schor's involvement in the satellite program, and the fact he was the project lead for the first phase of the competition, was one of the reasons he was hired.
Kotelko said Magellan likes to hire students who have experience working on design projects. With the U of M's satellite-design program, students not only gain experience in solving complex engineering problems, they also learn how to work with a variety of different types of engineers and how to work on a deadline.
"Those are big sellers to us when it comes to hiring someone," she said, adding her group has hired at least two students in the last couple of years who worked on the satellite project.
The U of M project is part of the Canadian Satellite Design Challege (CSDC), a Canada-wide competition in which teams of university students design and build a small, operational, science-research satellite.
Each phase of the competition lasts two years. The first phase, which ended in September 2012, was won by Montreal's Concordia University.
The U of M students are aided in their efforts by a group of about 50 volunteer advisers from industry, government, the military and other walks of life. For example, Greg Linton, the project's design lead, works full time for Canada's Defence Department.
Reza Fazel-Darbandi, the project's business lead, said Magellan is one of about 25 businesses and foundations who have provided funding or donations in kind for the program. Others include Standard Aero, Parker Hannifin, the Canada Foundation and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering.
Kotelko said Magellan has been involved in the U of M project since its inception three years ago, providing mainly mentoring and advisory services. She said she and about 14 other engineers from the Space Systems Group have worked on the project. In addition to providing advice, they've also served on review committees and have held engineering workshops for the students.
The Space Systems Group also helped arrange for its solar-cell supplier to donate some solar cells to the U of M project. She knows of at least one other company that donated a software program.
Linton said the students working on the next generation of the satellite have made some radical design changes to their first version in order to improve its performance.
"How we solve the problems (with the first version) is all up to the students," he added.
Kinsner said each phase of the competition can cost up to $100,000 -- the cost of the first one was about $75,000 -- and the students are heavily involved in the fundraising efforts.
Linton said one of the paybacks for the project's sponsors is it can be a valuable source of future employees for them.
"Companies can come in here and see what skills and talents the students have and pick the best of them," he said.
"We've lost some of our team leaders because of this," added Ahmad Byagowi, the project's systems integration lead..
Kinsner said if the U of M wins the second phase of the competition, it will likely cost about $250,000 to get its satellite launched into space. To get it launched, it will have to partner with an international space agency that is planning to send a rocket into space.
He said he's in talks with space agencies in Russia, China and India.
"They have rockets and lots of knowledge," he said. "And they're also reaching the stage where they want to collaborate."
Concordia University, for example, is currently waiting to hear if it will be selected to participate in the European Space Agency's Fly Your Satellite program.