Right place, right resources

From hands-on computer science to natural resources fieldwork, Braden Kowalski found all the right tools at UMD.

Maybe it’s his colorful knit hat. Perhaps it’s the 1,000-page novel sitting on top of his backpack because it doesn’t quite fit inside. Or it could be the robotic dog that’s walking beside him. There’s just something compelling about Braden Kowalski that draws you in and makes you want to learn more.


Kowalski, a computer science student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), remembers watching videos of a robotic dog from Boston Dynamics when he was young. He was fascinated, but doubted he would ever get the chance to interact with that type of advanced technology. Fast forward to his junior year at UMD when Kowalski took a Sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) class taught by Arshia Khan, PhD, a professor of computer science in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE). One day, Khan walked into the classroom and asked Kowalski if he wanted to learn how to operate the department’s new robot: A dog. 

Robotic dog in UMD classroom with other robots in background.
At UMD, students gain hands-on experience with advanced technology like this robotic dog.

Right place. Right robot.

His childhood dream of interacting with a robotic dog was realized. Suddenly, new curiosities began to emerge: “What else can I do with this? Where else can I take this knowledge, and how can I implement it to make a difference in the world?” Kowalski said.

Like many of his peers, Kowalski began his college career in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and was searching for ways to connect more deeply with the world around him. One day between classes he was walking through a job fair in the Kirby Commons, when he stopped at a table occupied by Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa. They were looking to hire students to help with habitat restoration projects.

“It really spoke to me as a way I could do something again; I could contribute,” Kowalski said. “I could get out there and put my own energy and put my own effort into something meaningful.” He filled out an application on the spot. 

Right place. Right opportunity.

“I firmly believe in interdisciplinary learning. I think it's a really important way to improve your skills.” -- Braden Kowalski, UMD computer science student

Two UMD students collaborate on programming homework around a laptop.
The Kirby Student Center provides students with space to collaborate between classes.

Kowalski spent the next two summers working on habitat restoration and invasive species mitigation projects throughout northern Minnesota, the first year as a crew member and the second year as a crew leader. That experience helped him realize that he would like to apply his computer science degree in a natural resources setting after graduation, because “everything needs technology,” he said.

Kowalski also gained experience in technical theatre and set design while at UMD and is thankful for the opportunity to explore subjects outside of his major. This, he said, helped him approach his studies from multiple perspectives, rounding out his education in a meaningful way.

Right place. Right resources.

“Here at UMD, I've really been given the chance to explore what interests me,” he said.


UMD student Braden Kowalski kneels next to a robotic dog. Photo by David Cowardin for the University of Minnesota Duluth.