On April 28, four Bucknell University seniors played a game of catch nearly a year in the making.
The students — mechanical engineers Vince Bellwoar, Stefan Hugel, Ian Moyer and Kevin VanDelden — looked relaxed as they tossed a Frisbee-style disc of their own design back and forth in the corner of Larison Hall during the annual College of Engineering Senior Design Expo. But their nonchalant confidence belied months of late nights and roadblocks that put to the test the problem-solving skills the students honed throughout their engineering education.
"Before this year, my teammates and I were not familiar with any of the hardware we used," said Moyer. "Our first hurdle was just figuring out what we were looking at."
Senior Design projects are a signature experience of a Bucknell engineering education that challenge undergraduates to develop and refine products with applications beyond the University. In recent years, an increasing number of external clients — including global corporations such as General Electric, Corning Inc. and Procter & Gamble — have partnered with the college to provide real-world industrial problems for undergraduate engineers to solve. This year, more than half of the 33 projects on display at the expo had external sponsors.
"It makes it real," is how Ron Ziemian, associate dean of engineering and professor of civil & environmental engineering, summed up the benefit of these partnerships. "When these students graduate, this is what they will do. But what's also important is that they get to do it with fewer risks or strings attached. Here the students can go down dead-end roads without a financial penalty. They can try different things, think outside the box and be creative."
Moyer and his teammates partnered with local entrepreneur Kevin Langdon, chief technology officer and co-founder of Lewisburg-based toy startup Play Impossible, to develop the flying disc they tossed back and forth during the expo. Outfitted with a sensor package of accelerometers and magnetometers, the disc communicates with an app allowing users to play games like hot potato.
"Kevin wanted us to figure out how far the disc went, how fast it went, how fast it spun, how long it was in the air, and a new metric we came up with was percent wobble, or how much the disc tilts in the air," Moyer said. "We spent a semester coming up with algorithms to get those metrics, as well as a way to mount the sensor under the disc. And he created an app for us to display what our algorithm outputs are."
Figuring out those simple-seeming data points was more complex than it might appear. To calculate one — initial velocity, or how fast the disc is traveling when it leaves your hand — the students employed a form of artificial intelligence called a neural network. Parts of what they developed may be patentable, Langdon noted.
"I think we might get two patents on this product that these students will be co-authors on," said Langdon. "And I think that by early 2018 we might ship this product."
If that happens, the disc would follow in a series of senior design projects that have resulted in patents, including a syringe to help first-responders treat cardiac trauma and a device that uses zebrafish to screen drug treatments for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Other products developed by this year's class of graduating engineers may also find real-world uses and even change lives. One such product is a neck brace, also meant for those with ALS, developed by the mechanical engineering team of seniors Kerra Mecron, Ben Mueller, Olivier Ouedraogo and Rebecca Skovira in partnership with the MDA/ALS Center of Hope at Temple University. Many of those affected by the neurodegenerative disease ALS must wear neck braces daily, but existing braces weren't designed for long-term use, so they frequently don't provide enough support or aren't comfortable, the team members explained. After speaking with clinicians and patients, the team developed three versions of a more robust and comfortable brace to conform to different patient anatomies.
"It really struck home when we went to the clinic and got to meet the people we're trying to help," said Meuller. "While it's a relatively small group of people who have this issue, seeing the difficulty of their lives, the simple things they can't do, and understanding how this could help really made this project worthwhile."
Those initial conversations are a key component of any senior design project, as the experience is meant to replicate the entire lifecycle of product development, from opportunity recognition to design to round after round of prototyping.
"When we start senior design, we shadow our mentor and try to identify 100 problems within our field — ours is emergency medicine — that we could possibly solve with our senior design project," said biomedical engineering major Annmarie Mullen '17. "Then we spend the whole first semester bringing that down to one problem we want to fix."
Mullen's team worked with the emergency department at a Geisinger Health System hospital on a device to improve emergency airway management in wilderness and military environments. Before arriving at the final prototype they displayed at the expo — a device resembling a bike pump allowing for both artificial respiration and suction to clear a patient's airway — they experimented with at least 10 different versions, using the University's 3-D printers to rapidly produce and refine components.
"Right now we have a fully functional prototype," Mullen said. "The next step is to go into clinical trials and evaluate manufacturing methods."
In offering students the opportunity to present their projects before their peers, professors and industry professionals, the Senior Design Expo puts a finishing touch on that multistage design process, which emphasizes teamwork and communication as much as technical skill development.
"We learned that a lot of the problems you have as an engineer are actually nontechnical problems," said Ethan Wise '17, an electrical engineer whose team worked with GE Healthcare and local hospitals on improving bedside ultrasound devices. "They're human problems — logistics, money, time — problems that everybody has, and often the easiest stuff is the technical stuff. That's not something that you learn in class."