Miss Kniss

September 7, 2013

BSU Grad Student Jenn Kniss is the epitome of geek chic.

By Taylor Cunningham
Photography by Copper Chadwick

Jen Kniss is a third-year graduate student in the Computer Science program at Boise State University (BSU). While her main interest is robotics, her overall involvement in the computer and electrical engineering fields is vast. Most days, Kniss is likely be found working on a vegetable oil powered vehicle, improving solar powered gadgets, tinkering with algorithms for use on robots, or working at Cradlepoint; a Boise company that is the global leader for 3G and 4G wireless network solutions.

As an undergraduate at BSU, Kniss majored in Economics with a Social Science emphasis. However it wasn’t until after she had graduated, and after spending time with friends who were interested in computer science and robotics, that she found her true passion.

“Computer science and robotics is creative and powerful, hard, and much more interesting than finding the best way to apply a system [Economics] that can’t be applied well,” Kniss said.

Since 2010, Kniss has been part of a student club at BSU called Greenspeed, which seeks to give students experience working in an interdisciplinary environment and to familiarize the public with alternative fuels. The club designs, builds, and races vehicles that run completely off of vegetable oil.

Every year the club races their vehicle at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and last year the vehicle built by Greenspeed beat the standing world record for vegetable oil powered vehicles with a speed of 139 miles per-hour. This success led to vegetable oil becoming an official fuel of the Bonneville Salt Flats race, and allows the Greenspeed team to race against gasoline-powered vehicles.

Their vehicle has reached the speed of 203 miles per hour in the past, and at this year’s race the team hopes to win the all over speed record for truck’s; which is 215 miles per-hour.

A month ago, Kniss’ work was inspired by her travels to Botswana, where she experienced solar power as a major energy source. Solar power is widely used in Africa since sunlight is such an abundant resource, and because installing solar panels and using the energy that they create is so simple. This trip sparked Kniss’ interest in solar power and she is now exploring its potential. She has created a USB charger for electronics that uses solar panels to create energy. A friend recently used it to charge his camera on a photography trip, and Kniss has used it regularly to charge her cell phone.

Kniss recognizes how challenging and intimidating a STEM education can be, but encourages students not to give up. “If you don’t get something right away, you feel stupid. It doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, it just means that you don’t have the right skill set yet,” Kniss said.

In order to inspire students to continue with their computer science and engineering majors at BSU, Kniss worked with professors to create a robotics class that is available at the undergraduate level. It will be offered next semester, and is meant to both inspire and motivate students to continue with their programming and robotics education by engaging them with the robotics processes.

“We wanted to create something tactile for students that was exciting,” Kniss said. The class will cover the use of line and light sensors, motors, and power in robotics.

Kniss is continually inspired by the people that surround her. Her friends do what they love, and influence her to do the same. If she gets confused she rolls with it, refusing to give up until she’s satisfied. This tenacity has undoubtedly led to her success.

“Not going to graduate college in 4 years? So what? That’s someone else’s standard,” Kniss said. “We don’t need people who conform to standards . . . [we need people] who want to learn because it matters to them – not because there is a piece of paper and a dream of a job at the end.”

To learn more about BSU’s Greenspeed and the record-breaking work they are doing, visit Greenspeed’s Facebook page.