Iowa State University, B.S. in Mechanical Engineering
Tom Cunningham is an Iowa Space Grant Consortium alum who has paved an incredible path for himself in the world of robotics and engineering. He started out at Iowa State University pursuing a B.S in Mechanical Engineering and currently works as an embedded systems engineer for John Deere, working on developing transmission algorithms and systems for several large pieces of John Deere Harvesting Equipment. While at Iowa State, Cunningham received two Iowa Space Grant Consortium scholarships, and spent a lot of time in the SSCL/SSOL lab as a technical contributor. He also gave a lot of work to the CySAT project during his time at Iowa State.
Cunningham learned a tremendous amount about embedded systems, both the programming side and the electronic side during his time at Iowa State and through his involvement with ISGC. His work with the CySAT project and the CyCADET 2 project allowed him to be a technical contributor.
During his experiences with the ISGC, Cunningham gained important memories with the program that helped him with his overall learning and future career path. One of his favorite memories included working with the SSOL/SSCL lab (Spacecraft Systems and Operations Lab and Spacecraft Missions and Controls Lab). When asked to explain this memory, Cunningham replied with:
“I absolutely loved the SSOL/SSCL lab. The people there were highly motivated, extremely intelligent, and they were there for the sole purpose of doing cool things. It was bit not part of class, and people were not really paid for their work, but a lot of hours were put in just because people loved it. Looking back at college, this was one of my favorite things and favorite memories.”
Since graduating, Cunningham took some time to work in robotics at the NASA Johnson Center. He also did 4 co-ops with NASA, which led to him working with them full time for about two and a half years once he graduated from Iowa State. He really enjoyed his time with the NASA co-ops, and believes that it somethings that should be greatly encouraged to the current student generation to pursue during their time in college. While he worked in robotics, he was one of the designers for the ARGOS (Active Gravity Response Offload System. The goal of the system was to create a large overhead crane system that would track the movement of a test subject and a hoist mechanism that would provide offload to make the subject feel like they were working on the moon, mars, or micro-gravity. Cunningham greatly enjoyed working with the ARGOS system, and it was one of his greatest accomplishments while working for NASA. In 2011, Cunningham and his family decided it was time to leave NASA and relocate back in the Midwest. He then took the position with John Deere as the embedded systems engineer, working on large harvesting equipment.
Cunningham’s career goals are to someday start his own company and incorporate his mechanical engineering skills into that company.
The success Cunningham has experienced is greatly due to his passion for STEM. He loves that the field constantly offers new things to learn and new ways to use his knowledge to push the very limits of technology. When being asked about why he loves STEM, Cunningham replied with: “STEM is more exciting than ever, the reason being it is the cost of getting into electronics, software, and mechanical systems is very low compared to when I was first starting out. I fully believe that we are going to see exponential growth in technology in the next 20 years because more people across the world will have access to resources to build incredible things. The concept of building stuff and seeing it work is what I get most excited about. I am in my mid-30’s and still play in a prototype shop in my basement creating gizmos and gadgets.”
When being asked to give a piece of advice to those just starting out in their STEM careers, Cunningham had this to say:
“The absolute best piece of advice out there is to get involved in some activity outside of class that allows you to develop technical and people skills. The key is to be highly involved, not just attending one weekly meeting for an hour, but putting it to quite a few hours per week (10+). Find something that you really enjoy and are passionate about. Not only will you gain experience but this will set you apart from other candidates when looking for jobs. Colleges across the country teach similar classes/ When resumes make their way to hiring managers, they have already been screened for a high enough GPA. Outside of class programs that you are doing for fun shows that you have a passuib for what you are working on, and that you can manage more than just classes.”
When being asked how ISGC helped him with his career, Cunningham had this to say:
“I learned an entire skill set of programing micro-controllers and making circuits that was not part of my mechanical engineering curriculum. I used those skills every day at NASA and currently for my John Deere Job”
The ISGC is extremely proud to have been a part of Cunningham’s story and we are excited to see what he does next.