Aerospace Engineer & iFixit Alum Arielle Sampson Is Taking Repair to New Heights

We love all of our community members, but we have a special place in our hearts for our student contributors. Not everybody knows this, but plenty of guides on iFixit’s repair wiki are written by hard-working university students. They tackle a host of devices (from graphics tablets to robovacs) and—with the help of feedback from their professors, their peers, and our dedicated EDU Team—their guides are often top-notch.

iFixit’s Technical Writing Program (iTWP) was introduced in 2009 at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. Since then, it has grown a bit: over 24,000 students across the US, Canada, and Europe have created more than 40,000 repair manuals on iFixit. Their collective efforts have encouraged millions of people around the world to fix their things, helping us all tackle the global e-waste problem one repair at a time.

We are very proud of the work they’ve done, and extremely thankful, too. We’ve had the privilege of getting to know these students over the years. We feel it’s time to introduce some of these talented alumni to the larger iFixit community.

Our first featured alumna is Arielle Sampson. Arielle hails from Watsonville, California, in Santa Cruz County, where she discovered at a young age her love for science, mathematics—and repair! She is a 21-year-old senior at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, studying Aerospace Engineering with a concentration in aeronautics and a minor in entrepreneurship. She’ll be graduating this Spring.

Arielle Sampson

Portions of the Q&A have been edited for clarity or conciseness.

iFixit: Tell us a little about yourself.

Arielle Sampson: In second grade, I distinctly remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be a scientist. My grandfather was a physicist at various aerospace companies starting in the 1950s, so I grew up listening to stories about the problems that some very smart people had to solve to win the Space Race.

During the summer of my sophomore year in high school, I found one of my brother’s old remote-controlled airplanes in our attic. The plane had several missing or broken electrical components, so I used online forums to repair the toy. Looking back, this was probably my first significant experience with repair. I scaled down some basic online airplane designs and transferred the electronics of the decrepit remote-controlled plane into my new plane using a few online videos. Then, I flew my very first homebuilt plane straight into a tree. I quickly learned that my piloting skills were subpar, but even more than flying, I loved tinkering, building, creating, and problem-solving.

I was drawn to Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” philosophy because I had learned about airplanes, aerodynamics, and engineering by completing hands-on work.

iFixit: What are your plans for the future?

Arielle: I am particularly interested in sustainability in the aerospace industry and would love to help design more planet-friendly airplanes. My master’s thesis will be focused on assessing the feasibility of all-electric passenger transport airplanes. The goal of my thesis will be to gain an understanding of how electrically-powered airplanes might help make the aviation industry more sustainable. This summer, I will be working at Boeing as a Configuration Design Engineering Intern.

The guides my team created have potentially helped keep thousands of devices from the world’s landfills.

Arielle Sampson

iFixit: Tell us about your experience with iFixit’s Technical Writing Project.

Arielle: I worked on the Standard Project. My team and I created replacement and troubleshooting guides for the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active smartphone. The battery replacement guide for the Galaxy S8 Active was one of the first guides my team and I completed. Within a week, our battery replacement guide had almost a hundred views. I started thinking about how even one guide on the iFixit website could make a difference in the world’s e-waste problem. Today, almost exactly three years later, that guide alone has over 15,000 views. The guides my team created have potentially helped keep thousands of devices from the world’s landfills.

Arielle Sampson

iFixit: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the project?

Arielle: The most surprising thing I learned during the project is how difficult some companies make it to repair their devices. Before participating in the iTWP, I had never really thought much about repairing my own devices. Like many people, I tended to use a product until some component broke, then shoved it in the designated “this electronic device doesn’t work anymore” drawer in my house. When my team and I started working on the replacement guides for the Galaxy S8 Active, we realized that what was advertised as a “rugged design” to keep out water and dust played a double role – it also kept us from easily accessing and replacing the phone’s internal components.

iFixit: What did you find most valuable about the experience?

Arielle: Throughout my education as an engineer, I have found that many of my peers only expect engineers to solve the problem or design the system; writing skills are often overlooked. This technical writing project has been one of the most useful projects I’ve experienced as a student at Cal Poly. It beautifully combined “Learn by Doing” while emphasizing that writing is a skill that engineers actually do need. An engineer can design the coolest new project of the 21st century, but without the skills to write about it and explain it to others, the product will never be successful. The Technical Writing Project taught me the valuable skill of writing about technical topics in a way that is understandable for non-engineers.

..if your alternative is buying a new version of the same device, I think that attempting to repair the device is always worthwhile.

Arielle Sampson

iFixit: Do you have any advice for current or future students going through the iTWP?

Arielle: I would advise future students going through the iTWP to test their replacement guides on their friends. As the writer of the guides, the process may seem totally self-explanatory and simple to you. However, many people have no experience with repair and might become discouraged if the guide is not written to be understandable to people without a technical background. 

iFixit: Did the iTWP change your opinion or perspective on repair or sustainability? If so, how?

Arielle: Before participating in the iTWP, I really didn’t realize that repair was possible for so many devices. Now, every time I or a friend needs a repair on a device, I always check the iFixit website first. I also actively encourage friends and family members to try repairing a device before banishing it to the e-waste landfills or to the designated drawer of broken electronics.

Arielle Sampson

iFixit: What is your favorite/most used tool in your toolbox?

Arielle: A Phillips-head screwdriver. Not only can it be used in tons of different repairs, but it also makes a pretty effective hammer in a pinch. I’m a huge fan of devices that only use Phillips-head screws!

iFixit: What are the biggest challenges you personally face when it comes to repair?

Arielle: Even after completing the iTWP, I still get intimidated by some repair projects. Sometimes, repair can be scary because there is a chance that the device may be left more damaged than before. However, if your alternative is buying a new version of the same device, I think that attempting to repair the device is always worthwhile. 

iFixit: What’s your best piece of repair advice? 

Arielle: Keep yourself organized! Keeping track of each piece that you remove will help you in the long run because you will be sure that no piece was misplaced. I typically use an egg carton to keep track of small screws and other pieces, and I always label components with tape to remember how they were oriented in the device. 

iFixit: In one word, what does repair mean to you?

Arielle: Sustainability.

iFixit: Is there anything else you want to share with us?

Arielle: iFixit’s repair guides have helped me fix two KitchenAid mixers, four laptops, a sewing machine, and a vacuum cleaner, and taught me to change the oil in my car!