Home-schooled until 7th grade, Luke Saindon learned his early lessons from his parents and the interactions of daily life in the Hancock County town of Deer Isle, Maine. When he graduated from public high school and enrolled at UMaine, Saindon chose to major in mechanical engineering. But it could just as well have been fine arts. He comes by both interests naturally. His father teaches high school shop classes, has a background in fine woodworking and leads blacksmithing workshops at the internationally renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
“He is very driven by precision and detail,” Saindon says of his father. “My interest in engineering comes from him.”
His mother, whom he describes as “a free spirit,” also is an artist, and it is from her, he thinks, that he inherited an interest in sculptural exploration and creativity.
Saindon opted for engineering because of its academic rigor and the promise of a career path studded with the opportunity to solve important problems. He has made the most of his time at the Orono campus. But after he graduates this spring, he plans to devote some attention to his artistic instincts and to explore the intriguing intersection of mechanical precision and aesthetics.
What are some of the experiences during your home-school years that you value most?
The community of home-schoolers was a great group. We spent several days a week hiking, swimming, sledding, cooking and doing other activities that were fun but also were used to promote our understanding of the world. It was a really comforting and wonderful atmosphere to grow up in. Book work was never shoved down our throats, yet somehow I don’t think any of us struggled when we finally went into public school. My favorite times were working with my dad in his workshop and going to art class with my mom. All my learning was project-based,and I can’t thank my parents enough for devoting so much time.
How did being home-schooled affect your later experience in public school?
Home schooling mainly kept me from becoming cynical about education and kept me engaged in learning a variety of ideas, not just what my friends and I were directly interested in. I had to motivate myself when I was home-schooled. I was never flat-out told to do anything, only that I couldn’t do nothing. When I transitioned into public high school, I really enjoyed it because there were more people to ask questions of and more resources.
The only reason I managed to be named salutatorian at Deer Isle-Stonington High School was because I didn’t have any sense of drudgery about my schoolwork. One of the best things about being in public school was the connection to community projects and the student groups associated with them. Deer Isle – Stonington High School also gave me my first taste of aerospace engineering by allowing me to build my own hybrid rocket motor. It was a great school.
Why did you choose UMaine?
It was a good value, first of all, and it turned out to be a great fit for me. My dad always told me how good the engineering program was in Orono and I guess I never questioned this. What I liked best when we visited was seeing all the senior engineering projects. They looked like grown-up versions of I what I liked doing already. I didn’t see nearly as many accessible hands-on projects at other schools. Generally, people on campus were much friendlier here as well. Looking back now, I can’t imagine not going here. I would have missed out on a lot of wonderful people and projects.
What are some of the highlights of your educational experience at UMaine?
During my freshman Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course, we had a speaker from Applied Thermal Sciences in Sanford, Maine, come talk to the class. I already knew I liked aerospace, and that was a big part of their business. I got my first real internship there the summer after sophomore year and it has been one of my most valuable connections and experiences. After my junior year, I got a chance to work for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., as a part of the NASA Propulsion Academy. I was surrounded by people from MIT, Harvard, the University of Texas at El Paso and other high-powered engineering schools. I was pleasantly surprised to find how well UMaine had gotten me up to speed on the basics.
That summer, I made friends and connections that I can count on for a long time. I feel that I can always find a way into the aerospace world if I so desire.
Generally, policies at UMaine are flexible enough to allow students to pursue what we’re interested in and start our own groups if they don’t already exist. For example, I started and worked for three years on the first FSAE (Formula Society of Automotive Engineers) chapter at UMaine. It seems like it fills an interest gap and draws a lot of enthusiasm. Hopefully, the team this year will be going to Michigan with the first car.
Also, a classmate and I decided during our freshman year that we wanted to build and launch a sounding rocket for our senior project. We got some funding from NASA and other sources and have had great guidance from our faculty adviser, Michael Boyle (associate professor of mechanical engineering), and huge support from other groups off campus. There are six senior mechanical engineering students on the team now, and it’s the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on.
What are some of the lessons of working on the rocket project?
With my home-schooling background, I had very strong, very independent ideas about how I wanted to do things. Learning to work in the rocket group was extremely valuable because, professionally, you’re never going to be entirely independent. Also, there is no end to the politics involved with raising money and conducting such a sweeping project. We’ve been Skyping with aerospace engineers across the country and flying to California to conduct tests. The best part has been working closely with professionals who are not from the academic world. It’s a totally different mindset, and a lot more gets done.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is knowing when to shut up and listen. Usually if you aren’t trying to guess what someone will say or shout over them, you learn a whole lot more.
How can art interface with engineering?
Machines can be outrageously beautiful, and there is no reason that engineering and art can’t talk to each other. Often the art world doesn’t present technical challenges as plainly as I like them, but there are some specific artists who have managed to marry art and engineering in a way that is very appealing. Arthur Ganson is one of these artists and I hope I can someday work with him. He does extremely beautiful and intricate kinetic sculpture that requires a lot of technical thought, both to create and to fully appreciate. Other artists such as Theo Jansen and Reuben Margolin also seem to have the technical and artistic worlds balanced in a really intriguing way.
Where are you headed after graduation?
Eventually, I would like to join one of the smaller commercial space businesses,such as Space X, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, Space Propulsion Group, Armadillo Aerospace or some other startup – but not right after graduation. I want to take some time off before I commit to a specific career path. This summer, I’ll work again as a sea kayak guide in Deer Isle. I’d like to spend the fall in Boston, possibly exploring the art world more. In the spring, I plan to travel in Europe and elsewhere, paying my way with volunteer work. Professional opportunities will be there when I’m ready; I can afford some time to think.
Is there a particular UMaine professor or mentor whose influence has been important to you?
Dr. Boyle, without a doubt. He takes a fairly hands-off approach, but has so much to offer when you get the opportunity to work on a problem with him. He was my thermodynamics professor and I always went to him when I had trouble understanding just
about any problem, including this past year when the rocket project involved so many thermodynamic challenges. What I might like best is that I feel comfortable chatting with him about all sorts of non-engineering-related subjects and listening to
his endless stories.
What course or courses nearly did you in?
Dr. Donald Grant’s vibrations course. I was trying to do too much at once that semester and was always ashamed of the quality of the work I submitted. Dr. James Sucec’s heat transfer and thermodynamics courses also were really tough; his tests are
incredibly specific. I think if you ask any mechanical engineering student, they would tell you heat transfer was one of their hardest classes. Dr. Grant and Dr. Sucec both mean business.
What course or courses were especially interesting or satisfying?
Ironically, the only class that I was in real danger of failing was differential equations; but it turned out to be one of the most satisfying classes I took. The professor was fabulous, Dr. Ali Erhan Ozluk, who recently passed away. I got three 50s
in a row on tests and then a 90 and finally a 100 on the final. Somehow he gave me a B+, and I never learned so much in a class.
What is your most important UMaine moment?
I hope it’ll be pushing the launch button on our high-altitude rocket this spring. More generally, though, it has been meeting people who I know will change my life forever.
What is your favorite place on campus?
Crosby Lab. Our rocket group (Team Ursa) has its own room and we just about live there. I know every nook and cranny by this point, where all the tools usually are, the manager’s break schedule, the night watchman’s schedule, the familiar graduate
students, and the orientation week tours. It’s also where I remember having the best tours when I was looking at schools. But Crosby can also be the last place I want to be by the time the weekend rolls around.
What advice would you give to a student considering a mechanical engineering major?
Don’t get too hung up on one project or idea. School is too early to commit to anything for sure. Finish what you start though; wasting other people’s money or time is the worst mistake you can make. Put everything you’ve got into it or you won’t get nearly as much out of it. Also, check out classes that aren’t required in the curriculum.
Image Description: Luke Saindon