Made by College Seniors, These Seven Products Give Us a Glimpse Into the Future

Engineering students at universities across the country took these projects from sketch to reality in one year

University of Vermont engineering student Joseph Maser gazes down at the prototype of the inflatable airlock for space stations and vehicles that he and three other students built. (Photo courtesy of Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)
smithsonian.com

Across the country, engineering students are graduating, and some are clutching their diplomas with extra relief—those who spent their senior year of college working on demanding capstone projects.

At many universities, the year-end engineering open houses are a free-for-all of prototypes and project boards. A year of thinking and tinkering by teams of computer, mechanical, biomedical and electrical engineers results in novel products—from rough models to sleek, fully functional prototypes.

Remember, these are Rolls Royce ideas on ramen noodle budgets—students become familiar faces in hardware stores from all the trips buying plywood, PVC and sheet metal.

Showcases aren’t just at universities, either. In Huntsville, Alabama, telecommunications company Adtran has been hosting a dozen or so university teams for the past five years. Adtran’s director of engineering, Kent Darzi, says that the program gives seniors a practical opportunity to pitch what they know in a business setting, but also clues in industry about the tech coming down the pike.

“It allows us to get a pulse on what the students are learning,” Darzi says. “But we want students to walk out having built up their confidence, and know that they’re ready for industry.”

Drone-based projects popped up at virtually every university showcase this year. One day, farmers may use drones to seek out diseased crops, or kids could practice laser tag skills, Star Wars-style, on target drones. Virtual conferencing could move from laggy Skype calls to an immersive Oculus Rift meeting. Firefighters’ masks may display not only how much oxygen is left in their tanks, but also the temperature of the room.

Of the thousands of projects presented across the country at universities and private businesses, here are a few that look particularly promising for changing people’s lives.

IncuBaby - Rice University

Student Team: Carissa Livingston, Amanda Boone, Bailey Flynn, Caleb Owsley and Zaid Haque

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Maria Oden

After learning that hypothermia is a leading cause of death of newborns in the developing world, a group of students at Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) came up with an IKEA-inspired solution. IncuBaby’s double-walled design, with an insulating layer of Styrofoam sandwiched between two thin pieces of birch plywood, is key to its low cost: the parts can be laser-cut and flat-packed. A typical modern incubator costs $35,000; IncuBaby costs about $250. A fan circulates air warmed by heating pads in the base and rear wall, and the temperature is controlled by a custom feedback circuit that sounds an alarm when something is amiss.

“A one-degree Celsius change in temperature can increase infant mortality by 80 percent,” says project advisor Maria Oden. “We challenged students to create a device that is cost effective, easy to use and easy to repair.” IncuBaby was named the best interdisciplinary project at Rice’s 2015 showcase. It will be field tested this summer in Malawi.

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