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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 2, 2005

UH engineering student honored

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

For the third time in five years, a University of Hawai'i student has won the top electrical engineering award in the nation.

UH student Blaine Murakami, 22, shows off a space satellite he and a team of 30 engineering undergrads designed and built.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Blaine Murakami, a 22-year-old graduating senior at the Manoa campus, was awarded the 2005 Alton B. Zerby and Carl T. Koerner Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineering Student Award by Eta Kappa Nu, the national electrical engineering society. In 2003 Aaron Ohta, who graduated from Manoa that year, received the same honor, and Kendall Ching received it in 2001.

The common denominator has been electrical engineering associate professor Wayne Shiroma, who mentored all three. Shiroma, a former Hughes Aircraft satellite engineer before coming home to Hawai'i to teach, has involved all of them in construction and design of mini-satellites at UH, a project that also has immersed dozens of Manoa engineering students in real-life engineering experiences.

It's an approach Shiroma is trying with a generation of students not content to listen to lectures. It offers them immediate feedback, Shiroma said, and shows them they have to search for their own solutions.

"We expose them to very open-ended, real-life projects that have relevance to industry where there is no clear-cut solution," said Shiroma. "When he works on projects, he is being an engineer, experiencing teamwork and real-life constraints."

But Shiroma also says these successes have much to do with the way older engineering students at UH mentor younger ones, bringing them along as part of the projects.

"It's really a case of excellence breeding excellence — good students helping to train more good students," said Shiroma.

It also has to do with recruiting talented Hawai'i high schoolers for UH and alert high school teachers who urge students on.

"As a sophomore at UH, Kendall went back to his high school, Mililani, and I tagged along, and we had a little recruiting session to get the high schoolers interested in the engineering program," said Shiroma. "The physics teacher took me on the side and said, 'You should really recruit Blaine, because he'll make a great engineer.' "

Meanwhile, Murakami thrived under the tutelage of Ohta, as well, and was second in command on the first UH satellite project, Cubesat, which was built inside a 4-inch cube, and then a leader in another satellite project.

"At UH, there's the opportunity to work on a bunch of different projects," said Murakami, who heads off today for California to spend a year or more working as an engineer before deciding on graduate school. "It really gives students the hands-on opportunity and a chance to develop not just as students but as working engineers in an industrial design setting. Anywhere you go, you have the potential to succeed, but the reason so many students are successful at UH is Dr. Shiroma really pushes us to succeed."

Working on the second project from sophomore through senior year, Murakami led a team of 30 electrical and mechanical engineering undergraduates to design, build and test two more small satellites for launch into low-Earth orbit, co-writing the research proposal to the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and earning funding of $100,000.

During his years at UH, Murakami also co-authored one book and 13 conference papers, which Shiroma calls "a record achievement for any undergraduate at UH."

And as a junior, he co-founded a company called Pipeline Communications and Technology, which won a Navy contract worth $250,000 to develop a steerable communications antenna technology. He also was named a UH Regents Scholar and a NASA Undergraduate Fellow by the Hawai'i Space Grant Consortium.

Ohta, the 2003 winner, completed a master's degree in electrical engineering in a year at UCLA and now is at UC-Berkeley working on a doctorate in nanotechnology — the science of miniaturizing systems.

Ching, the 2001 winner, worked in fiber optics before returning to UH for a master's, which he will complete this summer.

But Murakami is undecided about his future. He's leaning toward combining electrical engineering with medicine, either in medical diagnostics or creating medical devices.

"I don't have one particular focus yet," said Murakami, "but I'd like to use what I've learned in school to help people."

Reach Beverly Creamer at 525-8013 or bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.