From Robotics Hobbyist to Aerospace Engineer

Your hobby just might turn into your career—and PSU could be the next step to get you there. Engineering started as a hobby for Jennifer Jordan, and now she’s a student at Portland State double majoring in Electrical Engineering and Physics with a minor in Mathematics.

Jennifer is from Astoria, a small town off the Oregon coast, and also happens to be the setting for the 1980s cult classic, “The Goonies.” At first, she didn’t want to go to college far from home, so she started close by at Clatsop Community College. That’s where her interest in engineering blossomed into her future career. “I was a leader of the ROV (remotely operated vehicles) team on campus. We built a robot named Lazarus and took it to an international robotics competition. It was a cool event, and it was the first time I was really exposed to the world of engineering and met people in the industry.”

Getting her degree wasn’t an easy road, though. “My mom died when I was pretty young,” says Jennifer, “so I didn’t have a safety net. I went to three different high schools and lived on my own for a while. I ran into financial issues when I was going to community college. I was working two jobs and going to school full time, and it just wasn’t feasible to balance everything.”

After a year and a half, Jennifer dropped out of community college to work full time. She got a job in the medical industry, which she did for five years before deciding she needed to go back to college. “Working in the medical industry helped me deal with my mom’s death, so it was helpful for me emotionally. But there was a point where I wasn’t being challenged. That pushed me to get more involved in different hobbies, like robotics, and go back to school.”

She found herself exploring the PSU website. She knew she wanted to study physics, but the Maseeh College of Engineering caught her attention. “Growing up, I always liked math and science, but I was living in a small town without opportunities in STEM. It seemed just out of reach,” says Jennifer. But Portland State’s excellent engineering programs and its affordability compared to other Oregon universities made it a real possibility. In the end, she decided to do both: physics and engineering.

“The first time I was on PSU’s campus was when I made an appointment to meet with an advisor in the Maseeh College Student Services office. Coming from a hobby background in engineering, I didn’t really know the difference between mechanical, electrical and civil engineering. They helped me find the best fit and told me about different scholarships.” Current and prospective undergraduate engineering and computer science students can schedule an appointment with a Maseeh College advisor or stop by during designated drop-in hours. Advisors do more than assist with admission and scholarships—they will help students transition into a career by connecting them with jobs and internships.

It didn’t take long for Jennifer to find her place. “When I first joined the Maseeh College, I was nervous about being a girl in engineering. In my Electrical Engineering 101 class, there were about 50 guys and 6 girls. It was really intimidating. But then I joined the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and got involved with people in the community.” SWE is an organization made up of students and women working in the engineering industry, and their mission is to provide professional development opportunities and engage in K-12 outreach.

After immersing herself in the engineering community and proving herself in classes, she was offered a managerial position in the Electronics Prototyping Lab (EPL). “The EPL is a lab through the Electrical Engineering department, but it’s open to ALL students, regardless of major. We’ve had English majors, art majors, all kinds of people. It’s just such a creative and inclusive environment.”

The EPL is just one of many labs in the Engineering Building. Maseeh College Student Ambassadors, like Jennifer, lead tours of the Engineering Building frequently. What’s one of Jennifer’s favorite thing about the Engineering Building? “There are so many things, but one cool feature is the Dryden Drop Tower. It’s a 102-foot tall metal tower, which you can see by the stairs when you enter the building. It simulates the micro-gravity that occurs on spacecraft.”

Jennifer is also involved with the Portland State Aerospace Society (PSAS), a student aerospace engineering project working on building Oregon’s first satellite (which will be launched by NASA) and a rocket that would allow PSAS to launch their own satellites in the future. With the funding and resources made possible through the Beta Project, Jennifer helped design and build what she refers to as “the cage.” Jennifer explains, “the cage is going to test the satellite. It creates a magnetic field strong enough to cancel out the earth’s magnetic field or amplify it in any direction. So when we have the prototype of the satellite built, the cage is going to test the satellite’s ability to orient itself.”

For the rocket project, Jennifer is working on the Argus Module, a  360° camera device. “It has six cameras that are oriented so we can stitch together the video from all the cameras and put it in an Oculus Rift (a virtual reality headset). When the rocket gets launched, you’ll be able to look around as if you’re on the rocket.” Watch a 360° interactive video of one of their rocket launches.

Jennifer relied on the student loans she got through FAFSA for her first year at Portland State. After she gained confidence and experience through her involvement with different engineering projects and groups, she applied for scholarships. She was awarded the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation scholarship (SMART) through the Department of Defense. The goal of the scholarship is to support and recruit some of the brightest STEM students in the nation. “They’re paying for my schooling, including my tuition, books and housing” says Jennifer, “and after I graduate, I’ll be doing a summer internship in Georgia and working for them for a few years after I graduate.”

And after working for the Department of Defense, Jennifer wants to work in the aerospace industry. If you had asked Jennifer years ago what she saw on her horizon, she would not have pictured this. “I don’t come from a family where I had a lot of financial or academic support. I never thought I could do anything like what I’m doing now. I’ve definitely put in a lot of hard work, but I could not have done it without the community and support here at PSU.”  

See how Portland State can help you with your next step.

Sign up for a campus tour and visit the Engineering Building.

Jennifer Engineering Project
Jennifer in one of the engineering labs showing off “the cage.”