CubeSats were first conceived as a hands-on education tool allowing students to design and test small satellites and develop space missions.
This teaching tool has now spread to many different universities, especially those with aerospace and similar engineering departments.
This rapid adoption of active and hands-on learning techniques is consistent with a trend in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines away from lecture-based teaching toward alternative teaching models that show enhanced learning outcomes.
Compared to lecture-based learning, average examination scores of students with hands-on approaches are higher.
There has been particular focus on team-based, hands-on, active-learning techniques, which provide opportunities for students to interact with complex problems—like the design and operation of a space mission—and to do so as a multifunctional team.
These engaged and team-based learning techniques have a positive impact on retention of students in STEM fields.
One of the most challenging concepts to teach in aerospace engineering is the interdependent subsystems and systems that make a successful space mission. Even though there are textbooks on the issue, active engagement in system development is essential for a young scientist or engineer to understand how their work fits into a greater whole.
With few exceptions, the active development of a space system is generally beyond the range of opportunities offered by academia and can only be experienced through internship in industry.
CubeSats offer an alternative that has the benefits of typically shorter development lifetimes, a reduced set of requirements due to smaller system complexity, shorter overall mission life, and typically a higher level of acceptable risk for the mission.