Professor Benjamin Villac is constantly amazed by the resourcefulness of the undergraduates he mentors as part of the UCISAT project. While he provides necessary guidance, his students frequently come up with creative and unique solutions to the challenges they encounter. Through the UCISAT project, Professor Villac provides his students a great combination of theoretical engineering and hands-on work, including managerial and organizational tasks. The project helps students realize how the information they learn in their classes can be used in the real world, giving them a powerful motivator for further study. UROP honors Professor Villac for his dedication to allowing engineering students to see the real applications of their studies.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

When initially interviewing to join UCI, part of my vision for the further development of space flight consisted of actually flight testing novel mission concepts rather than leaving these studies at a theoretical level. Arriving at UCI, I discovered that a group of students were actually working on designing a small satellite (cubesat). Believing in practical education as well, I started to advise the students on the cubesat design/build/fly project, which I think is a fantastic learning experience with significant research potential as well. Besides the many undergraduate research opportunities associated with the design/analysis of spacecraft, my research in spaceflight dynamics also led me to propose several more theoretical project for undergrads, such as the stability analysis of spacecraft around asteroids and the study of particular periodic orbits. While the dynamical models used in spaceflight can be complex, a lot of insight can also be achieved with simple models, which allow students to experiment using simple methods they learned in class in a practical context.

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

The main qualification I am looking for in an undergraduate student is to be motivated and enthusiastic about the project! The UCSIAT project is the result of the motivation of several dedicated students. I also generally require/encourage a fair amount of independence on the part of the students with regards to learning new material by themselves, such as computer programming skills. For theoretical projects, the students should also have a sufficient mathematical background.

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

For the UCISAT project, I let the student manage the project on their own and simply give them advice or indicate issues with the proposed plans. We have weekly meetings after working hours, so all the students can attend, and I also meet with some students in small groups during normal business hours to discuss particular topics. I make sure the students do not go astray and stay focused on their project. Also, I encourage the students to think in a larger international context—as well as contacting local companies, to do some networking and go to conferences. When feasible, I also accompany the students to provide further support. For individual research projects, I meet weekly with the students to discuss the accomplishments or difficulties encountered and propose the next step forward.

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

The design/build/fly projects are a great way to combine theoretical aspects with more hands-on concerns, along with managerial and organization skills which are not captured in the classroom. The students’ also being more in charge of the project and being motivated by the practical nature and scale of the project makes the experience a catalyst in the education of engineers. The students really see the tools they have learned at work, along with the need to continue learning on their own. They become more independent and proactive. The networking aspect of the UCISAT project also helped some students find interesting jobs in the aerospace industry. For the individual projects, the students generally realize that the mathematical background that they learned (such as vector calculus) is actually useful and used. I believe such projects benefit the students in integrating different aspects of their education.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

I learned that the students are more resourceful when given responsibilities and let free, even though some guidance is definitely necessary. In particular, the Center for Engineering Science in Design (CESD) provides the necessary infrastructure for this type of learning experience. I also continually learn about hardware from students (such as CPUs, Radios, etc.), and enjoy seeing their enthusiasm and commitment. I have also discovered the large interest in the industry for these types of projects and try to include more advanced research ideas in them. They also allow for experimentation of different ideas, organizational structures, or approaches, which are useful for larger projects.

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

Learning can be fun, even if learning requires some effort from a student! My advice is to find a project that you like and commit to it. The more involved in a project you are, the greater the learning experience and reward. Participating in a longer-term project over several quarter to experience the growth of an idea or development of some design/product is very satisfying.

Research Interests: Spaceflight dynamics, navigation, dynamic systems, control

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '11 Louis DeSipio
Nov. '11 Anthony A. James
Oct. '11 Tiffany Willoughby-Herard
Sep. '11 Angela Lukowski
Aug. '11 Petra Wilder-Smith
Jul. '11 Ron D. Frostig
Jun. '11 Sunny Jiang
May. '11 Samuel L. Gilmore
Apr. '11 Sally Dickerson
Mar. '11 Shahram Lotfipour
Feb. '11 Mark Steyvers
Jan. '11 Benjamin F. Villac