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Kevin Witkoe, Goldwater Scholar

Building A Future Based on a Golden Foundation

By Amanda Cairo

As other children were dreaming of becoming astronauts, Spokane, Wash.'s Kevin Witkoe was dreaming of building the rockets to send those astronauts into space. Science is a passion he's continued with and is using his recently awarded Goldwater Scholarship to help develop it.

"When all the kids wanted to be astronauts, I wanted to build the rockets."

"I've always liked working with my hands, building things and seeing how they worked," says Witkoe, a mechanical engineering junior.

At the University of Idaho, Witkoe, has moved beyond his first building blocks and Lego rockets and is interning with NASA and working with university researchers on robotics. As part of the Idaho Space Grant Consortium, Witkoe spent last summer at NASA's jet propulsion lab in Pasadena, Calif. working on making a robotic gripper for rock surfaces in microgravity. He will be returning to the lab this summer to develop tools for the robotic arms of the lunar robot Athlete.

It was his internship, and research with mechanical engineering assistant professor Eric Wolbrecht on robotic hands to help stroke patients' physical therapy, that helped him earn the Goldwater scholarship. Witkoe is working on calculating the necessary speed of the robotic hand for it to be an effective therapeutic tool.

While research was a part of the application requirements, Witkoe also wanted to gain experience writing for when he goes to graduate school, where he will be publishing articles for scientific journals.

"It was a challenge; I wanted to see if I was competitive with other students across the nation," says Witkoe, who plans to earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering and conduct research in robotics and/or teach at the university level.

While his coursework keeps him busy, he also participates in the Vandal Atmospheric Science Team as the assistant flight director. He works with associate professor of electrical engineering David Atkinson and other students across multiple disciplines to send weather-recording instruments into the air by high-altitude weather balloons. Witkoe is in charge of ensuring the recording devices are separated from the balloon after the readings are taken.

He also works with Ed Galindo, director of the Natural Resources Tribal Cooperative at the University of Idaho Aquaculture Research Institute, creating space-related science kits that focus on engineering and science for schools with underserved science programs.

"It's a great opportunity to get students interested in science and engineering," says Witkoe.

While Witkoe has always been interested in science and engineering, it was the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate, the programs offered and the professors at the university that helped him choose the University of Idaho.

"I'm really glad that I chose to come here," says Witkoe. "Earning a Goldwater Scholarship really shows that what I am doing here is nationally competitive."

Witkoe was one of 271 scholars named. University of Idaho physics sophomore Rebcca LaVerne Winzer was also named a Goldwater scholar. The Goldwater Scholars were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,107 mathematics, science, and engineering students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. His one-year scholarship will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500.