In Northern Minnesota, it is not uncommon to have threads linking us together, and this story is one of them. It includes a faculty member, current students, alumni, and an area business working together to provide excellent educational opportunities for the University of Minnesota Crookston’s software engineering students.

Department Chair, Venugopal Mukku, Ph.D., provided this insight on our featured faculty member.

Photo of Christine Bakke

Christine Bakke, Ph.D., joined UMN Crookston in 2015 after obtaining a doctorate in information technology from Capella University in 2013. Her dissertation focused on higher education and the importance of technology and engineering education. Currently, she is teaching courses in information technology management and software engineering. She is passionate about her advisees and is devoted to preparing them to graduate, ready to pursue their dreams. UMN Crookston acknowledged her dedication to student access and success by presenting her with the Access Achievement Award in 2017. In addition to her teaching, she takes on multiple active roles on campus, in the community, and abroad. Her passion for technology and engineering education for everyone has led to her role as director of robotics and technology camps at UMN Crookston. Bakke’s expertise and interests are diverse and she describes her experience as ‘all things IT’. She enjoys programming projects in the classroom and beyond, with special interests in creative works research. Some of her favorite projects with students include smart home devices with custom apps, game development, artificial intelligence chatbots, and accessibility software.”

Robotics project by Bakke

Because hands-on projects that require education and experience were something she missed, Bakke found ways to incorporate applied projects, including outside of class projects that afforded students opportunities to work on real software products. These projects have provided UMN Crookston software engineering students opportunities to gain professional experience prior to graduation.

Photo of Christopher Lang

The intersection of student dreams, the real life experience of our faculty, and the legacy of our alumni come together. Bakke says, “A few years ago, I noticed one of our new students, Christopher Lang 2020, frequently volunteering for projects in the software engineering lab. I began to learn a bit about him, his likes and dislikes.” Lang had SpaceX emblazoned on his favorite sweatshirt and he often spoke of Mars and the stars. During a conversation about his goals, he mentioned he would like to work for SpaceX. Her thought was, “I knew of one former student, a family friend, who had experience in a space career. Ben Gunvalson had been offered a NASA internship after his robotics team won a national competition." Lang had a lot of robotics experience already, so Bakke recommended getting as much technical experience as he could to continue in the right direction to attain his goals of getting an internship at SpaceX.

With that idea in mind, Bakke knew projects became available through research grants, business requests, or as special requests from donors. It wasn’t long after the conversation with Lang when Tim and Jenny Slukynsky of Lamplighter Hockey came to the business department with a project that involved redesign of their existing product, developing a custom app and custom wiring. The project redesign and custom app had a lot of interest, but only Lang was willing to take on the custom wiring of an arduino. Over the course of one school year, the team progressed to the point where they could offer the client direction and provide them with several app designs and an improved project design, but there was not enough time to learn everything needed to customize and program the arduino. Although the team was disappointed the project was not fully completed, the company was happy and Lang gained valuable real world experience.

Lang continued to grow his resume with involvement in more projects that were available such as a custom Waste Watchers system for sustainability, working on the City of Crookston’s website, and working in the Undergraduate Collaborative Learning and Experiential Applied Research (UCLEAR) Lab - an immersive computer visualization and informatics lab suite. He became a member of the programming and drone teams, and was able to work on custom 3D printing projects and the virtual reality outreach. He applied and obtained funding through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) working with Associate Professor Katy Chapman, Ph.D.

During his junior year, and with a more robust resume, Lang applied for every space related internship he could find. That summer, he was awarded an internship with NASA. Later, Lang informed Bakke NASA hired him for his arduino experience.

The story and connections continued. During his senior year, Lang was asked to be a student speaker at Torch & Shield. During the banquet, Bakke visited with Ben Gunvalson’s family who had a special connection to Lang’s story as their son had a similar experience at UMN Crookston. Bakke remembers, “Until attending the dinner, I had not realized Ben had a parent who was a UMC alum, and that Ben’s brother also attended UMC. Small world! It was fun to introduce John 1975 and Cheri Gunvalson and their son, Jacob, to Lang and they had an enjoyable evening chatting through the program and dinner.”

Lang brought Bakke a new client with a request for a project with many similarities to the one they had collaborated on with Lamplighter Hockey years before. Since Lang was near graduation, he could not participate as a student and requested to be part of the team and join remotely as a mentor. A sophomore student, Jacob Boothroyd, volunteered and university funding was secured through a UROP grant allowing Boothroyd to be funded while he worked to solve the new project.

Lang and Boothroyd met with Bakke regularly in the fall via Zoom. Boothroyd enjoyed a jump start because the project was similar to the original Lamplighter project. With Lang and Bakke’s prior history on the project, Boothroyd built on their experiences. This time a working prototype was completed in a single semester.

As they worked through the new project Bakke would occasionally mention Lamplighter Hockey and wondered if they found someone to complete the electrical arduino portion of their project. With a prototype in hand, the team discussed the possibility of returning to the Lamplighter project next fall with both Boothroyd (currently a junior) and Lang expressing interest. Bakke contacted Slukynskys to determine if they were interested in continuing the students previous work. They quickly responded stating they would be willing to work with them once again.

The start of every academic year brings new adventures. Challenging and uncertain projects provide opportunities for students to customize their education and chase their dreams allowing the University of Minnesota Crookston to set the stage for student success. Bakke knows that with support from businesses, alumni, and the University of Minnesota there will continue to be opportunities for students to explore projects that help them pursue their dreams.

A sincere thank you goes out from Bakke and her students to area businesses and alumni who have provided these opportunities, and to the university for providing grants to support experiential research projects. Bakke shares, “I find myself in a position where I am grateful to a community, to alumni, and to the University of Minnesota Crookston for providing connections and resources that allow our students to participate in real projects.”

Written for the Spring 2021 Torchlight e-Newsletter.

Story Contact: Shawn Smith