Engineering graduate goes above and beyond to complete four degrees in five years
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.
Kristen Eckman is a profoundly driven person. She is graduating from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering this spring with three bachelor’s degrees. She then will return this fall to complete a master’s degree in aerospace engineering by next May. Four degrees in five years is a Herculean accomplishment, but Eckman is someone who thrives in the context of substantial challenges.
The process of her prolific studies at Arizona State University started when she graduated from high school a full year early at age 16, and the application of credit from AP classes put her on track to graduate from college after just two years.
“I would have been entering the aerospace industry at 18, and that did not appeal to me,” she said. “So, I came up with a plan to combine three major maps to see if they all could be completed in four years.”
Eckman determined that it could be done, and decided to take on the challenge. From what she knew, no one had completed three engineering degrees concurrently in the time most people finish just one. But she also noted that her majors, all offered within the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools, complement each other in a practical manner.
“Mechanical engineering gives me the basis of how things work, and then aeronautics and astronautics give me unique applications,” she said. “When people ask about the benefit of all three degrees, I say I’ll have the ability to make things work on land, in the air and in space!”
Eckman decided to take one extra year to pursue the Fulton Schools' 4+1 accelerated program to earn her master’s degree because it offered the chance to do more challenging projects in specific undergraduate classes when completing them simultaneously for graduate credit.
“It holds you more accountable for those critical courses,” she said. “Plus, it’s a great ‘bang for your buck’ because the graduate degree qualifies you for a higher-level job, which recovers the cost of that master’s program year. It just makes sense to me.”
Even so, completing four degrees in five years generates enormous logistical challenges. There were times when Eckman says she felt the balancing act was too much. For example, the second semester of her mechanical engineering capstone project coincided with very difficult work during the junior year of her aerospace engineering program.
“That was a tough time for me. There were so many projects and tests. I was thinking that I could just drop my astronautics major and be fine with two degrees,” she said. “But I had a great support system and it turned into a learning moment. I didn't want to give up all that I had worked to accomplish, so I pushed through and figured out how best to manage my time to complete everything. And I'm very glad that I did.”
Internships have played a significant role in Eckman’s undergraduate experience at ASU. As a sophomore, she worked on retrofitting and modifying avionics for Honeywell.
“My day-to-day was very fun,” she said. “I took customer field problems – for instance, one of the screens in a cockpit going black during flight – and recreated them in our lab. I had to then figure out what was causing it to happen, find which connection I could change to fix it and then test the fix until it was stable. I basically got a crash course on how to operate a plane in two weeks.”
Eckman says her time at Honeywell presented a steep learning curve, but she loved seeing how much the Fulton Schools experience prepared her for going above and beyond in her work ethic. It also showed her that she wanted to be involved in systems testing on actual hardware.
She then started interning for Lockheed Martin Space during the summer of 2019, working on testing procedures for satellite ground systems. Following graduation from ASU this spring, Eckman is taking another internship role as a systems engineer at one of Lockheed Martin’s Colorado sites.
She then will return to Tempe in August to finish her master’s degree program. When complete, Eckman would like to become a propulsion test engineer and help to develop the spacecraft that sends the first people to Mars.
“Exploring other planets is the next great space engineering challenge, and I would love to be part of that effort,” she said. “I've always been obsessed with the sky. When I was little, I would watch airplanes and wave to helicopters. So, it would be awesome to help humanity explore other worlds, including wishing Godspeed to the first people leaving for Mars.”