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Engineering seniors' work on prototypes extends beyond traditional classroom projects

BY CAITLIN HUSTON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2010

While the sight of cockroaches repulses most people, some Engineering seniors have a greater appreciation for the giant crawlers.

Engineering senior Ahmed Suhaib is part of a group that is working to design a chip that will attach to the nervous system of a cockroach and control its movements.

“We hope that we would be able to make the roach run in (a figure) eight shape,” Suhaib wrote in an e-mail interview.

Suhaib’s “Roboroach Project” group is one of various Engineering student groups that are required to build a design prototype as part of the Biomedical Engineering Design Program. The prototype is the capstone to the program, which involves a progression of courses and encourages students to learn how to solve “problems for real clients with faculty guidance and professional mentorship,” according to the program’s website.

At the beginning of the semester, clients pitch ideas to the student groups, which then design and present models to the clients, with the possibility of the project being utilized beyond the scope of the class.

If the project succeeds, Suhaib wrote that the group’s overall goal is to use the example of the chip within the cockroach to “demonstrate how electric signals (or false neurosignals) control the cockroach's movement.”

This prototype can be used to teach high school students about neuroscience, which is a subject that is “very hard to teach in high schools,” Suhaib wrote.

In an e-mail interview, Engineering senior Teresa Wang wrote that biomedical engineering students are placed in groups to build the prototypes based on their previous coursework, experience and interests.

Wang wrote her group is working on a project called the “Apparatus for 3D Engineered Cardiac Microtissues.” Her group will utilize a technique involving small hydrogel beads developed by the University’s Cell-Matrix Interactions and Tissue Engineering Lab.

The CMITE Lab will entrap living heart muscle cells within the beads, and the group will try to develop a tissue culture chamber, which will provide electrical stimulation to the cells and aid in their development.

“The overall goal of this work is to develop a method to create functional, aligned cardiac modular microtissues that can be delivered transcutaneously to the heart as a treatment of heart failure,” she wrote.

Wang wrote some designs never make it out of the classroom. But she said her group is determined to create a usable device, which could potentially contribute to research for a cure for heart failure, especially in infants.

“Imagine a world where heart patients will no longer need to wait for the right heart donor to come along,” she wrote.

Though the projects are challenging, Suhaib wrote he is enjoying building the prototype, as it offers him real-world experience and better prepares him for his future career.

“We are learning how industry comes up with new ideas, and we are also learning about technical communication in industry,” he wrote. “We are being treated as a group of engineers working in an industry.”

Wang also wrote she views the projects as a “rite of passage” that will teach her group more about the engineering field.

“We would like to think that by the end of this semester we will be mentally stronger, wiser and more prepared to take on future engineering challenges,” she wrote.