Villanova Engineers Spend Summer on Self-Directed, Real-World Projects

Student teams traveled to Melbourne, Florida to present their projects to Harris Corporation Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer William (Bill) M. Brown ’84 ME, ’87 MSME (front row, fifth from left).
Student teams traveled to Melbourne, Florida to present their projects to Harris Corporation Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer William (Bill) M. Brown ’84 ME, ’87 MSME (front row, fifth from left).

In summer 2016, with the continued support of the Harris Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Harris Corporation—the College of Engineering hosted its campus-based incubator program called the Villanova Summer Innovation Incubator (VSII). Now in its second year, VSII funded four self-directed, multidisciplinary teams who engaged in the engineering design process to address real-world challenges, mirroring the practice of professional engineers.

VSII is emblematic of the College of Engineering’s ongoing commitment to transform the way engineers are taught. The idea is to foster an open, highly collaborative environment where teams can pursue innovative solutions to unmet societal or technological needs of their choosing. Outside of weekly update meetings with their respective faculty mentors, students are responsible for managing all aspects of their projects, from initial design concept through delivery of a prototype. During their two-month innovation residency, students receive stipends, free room and board, project budgets and access to the University’s labs and facilities.

Of the 10 teams that submitted final proposals, the following four were competitively selected to participate:

Virtual Education System (VES): An interest in “closing the gap” for kinesthetic and visual learners prompted John Aquino ’18 ChE, David Lewis ’17 CpE, Noah Schwanke ’18 CpE and Matthew Wood ’18 ChE to develop their Virtual Education System (VES). Using a pyramid, VES creates the illusion of a 3D image that can be manipulated by hand and viewed from all sides, allowing for a new perspective in the classroom while improving students’ spatial awareness.  The team explains, “VES augments the classroom curriculum to allow students to use more senses while learning.”

The team has worked alongside teachers, “making their input a priority throughout the development process.” School boards also have been consulted to gather feedback and learn how VES can be incorporated in the classroom easily and effectively.

This summer, the team completed a working VES prototype and created an interactive lesson intended to help fifth graders visualize the concept of volume by filling a large container with cubes. They also made a demonstration video. Moving forward, the students want to continue to develop the project, pitching the prototype to investors in hopes of making their summer vision a marketable product.

“Even though it sounds cliché,” says Matthew, “this summer opportunity was the experience of a lifetime for all of us. We learned that you can achieve your vision if you set your mind to a common goal.” He adds, “We are proud of the work we accomplished; the self-direction aspect of the program really allowed us to work to our full potential.”

Tagg: With their app Tagg, Computer Engineering juniors Sean Carroll and Michael DiLoreto, and Computer Science junior Sam Miller plan to put the “social” back into social media. The goal of Tagg is to streamline and enhance the process in which two people exchange contact information across various social media platforms

Using GPS technology, Tagg generates an algorithm-sorted list of users within a given geographic range of the base user. The list is ranked based on how likely these individuals are to be actually interacting with each other. This is determined by sorting users by the time spent in close proximity to the base user. The base user can decide to Tagg someone on the list, and the intended can accept or reject a Tagg. Once two users are connected they are free to message each other, connect on select social media platforms and share location information.

The Tagg team expressed its appreciation for the VSII experience: “Given the unique opportunity the VSII program afforded us, we were able to dive right into the world of mobile app development.  Each day we grew in our understanding of multiple fields, from database programming to user interface design.”

AtmoGEN: Recognizing the dire need for a reliable and affordable water source for the people of southern Madagascar, Mackenzie Bowden ’18 ChE, Stephanie Krakower ’18 CE, Andrew Meluch ’16 ME, ’18 MSSE, and Bryan Ramirez ’18 CE set out to create a working prototype of an atmospheric water generator that aims to provide potable water to every household in the region.  AtmoGEN sustainably harnesses water from the humid air, which not only provides a viable source of water, but does so in a way that is inexpensive and environmentally friendly.

After narrowing down the materials needed to create a biphilic (attracts and repels water) surface, the AtmoGEN team has begun developing a working prototype and hopes to eventually field test it in Madagascar.

“This experience taught us how much time a research project like this one can take,” says Stephanie. “The eight weeks we spent on it have been incredible, but we know now that going forward we will have to continue to put a great deal of time and dedication into the project if we want it to grow.”

She adds: “Working on our own self-directed project taught us a lot about managing our time and resources. It definitely helped to have faculty mentors whom we could turn to, but at the end of the day we are incredibly proud to know how much we were able to accomplish in such a short time.”

Zoo Animal Recognition: Computer Engineering seniors Kyle Cartwright, Kevin Guzman and Yujune (Kevin) Park, with Computer Science senior David Kim, are developing an app to alert visitors to the current locations of individual big cats traversing the elevated cat path (Big Cat Crossing) at the Philadelphia Zoo. Using a strategically placed camera system and a facial recognition algorithm, the app will provide a brief introduction to the cat it has identified, creating a more dynamic, interactive and personal experience for the visitor.

At this point, the team has a prototype app that demonstrates how the system will appear to users at the zoo. They are currently working to refine the app’s facial recognition algorithm. Speaking for the team, Kyle says: “The biggest thing we are working on is integration. We have all of these components, but they must be tied together. Likewise, we are still working to make our system results communicate with the mobile application.”

Reflecting on the experience, Kyle explains that problem solving was the most important lesson learned: “There were countless times when we would come to a halt in our programming and needed to take a step back and figure out a solution to drive us forward again. We learned to keep a calm demeanor and to not let frustration overwhelm us while attempting to work out the bugs of our design.”

Overall, the team found it was a great experience to be able to take charge of the project. “Being essentially our own bosses required us to stay increasingly motivated as we moved through the summer, and it was very rewarding to see how well we could keep the ball rolling.”

In late July, at the conclusion of the VSII program, the student teams traveled to Harris Corporation’s Headquarters in Melbourne, Florida to present their final projects to the company’s engineers and leadership, including VSII 2015 participants Abigail Buckenheimer ‘16ME and Nicholas Kambouroglos ’16 CpE who now work for the company. The students had the opportunity to tour various Harris facilities, including the Harris Technology Center and the newly renovated Global Innovation Center (GIC). Harris Corporation’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer William (Bill) M. Brown ’84 ME, ’87 MSME, who is a long-time supporter of Villanova and a member of the Engineering Advisory Board, had lunch with the students and participated in the tour of the GIC. By all accounts, the opportunity to personally engage with Mr. Brown and learn about leadership and innovation was a highlight of the trip and the VSII experience.