Students present interdisciplinary design projects at engineering expo

Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 6:24pm

Students, faculty, staff and the general public were invited to the University of Michigan College of Engineering Design Expo to hear students discuss their multidisciplinary design projects Thursday. Through these projects, students aim to develop solutions to real-life problems using collaborative, integrative approaches.

Organized by the Multidisciplinary Design Program, the biannual event, which spreads throughout several buildings on North Campus, includes a series of hands-on student presentation.

The MDP, which operates out of the College of Engineering, offers team-based projects to students University-wide. Several of the projects were part of the senior design project courses, and a handful were nonprofit or industry sponsored.

Payal Agarwal, MDP administrative assistant and expo organizer, said the event offers students an opportunity to present in front of an audience and receive constructive input from attendees that will help them moving forward.

“These students work really hard the entire year on their projects and frankly if I work hard on something, I want to show it off,” she said. “This is a platform for them to do that. They definitely get the feedback from visitors. They can learn how to talk to people.”

Engineering senior Kaitlyn Holmstrom was a member of a 20-person team that aimed to collect more accurate data on the planetary boundary layer, also called the atmospheric boundary layer. The team developed small drones that, like maple seeds, spin as they fall to the ground. The drones have four wings and a circuit board in the center with sensors that record atmospheric data, such as wind speed and pressure.

Holmstrom said one of the goals of the expo is for the group to get feedback from the public.

“We work on this, and it’s just us 20 people who know about it,” she said. “Then you get hundreds of people coming through. You get to gauge, is this an important project or not? What does the public think?”

She said as a result of working with other engineering disciplines, she gained a different perspective on the project.  

“I’m a mechanical engineer,” Holmstrom said. “In class projects, I work with other mechanical engineers. On this, there’s computer engineers, computer software, people from aerospace, so a bunch of different disciplines. It’s cool to see how their parts affect our parts and learn more about what they do. I think that strengthens my career as an engineer because when I get out into industry, I’ll know more about what that team does.”

Engineering senior Adam Vignaroli worked with a team to help design a plant that produces the herbicide dicamba, because certain weeds are resistant to traditional glyphosate herbicides. He said he felt that it was important to present his team’s work because dicamba will soon be widely used.

“We’re expanding the ideas to the people,” Vignaroli said. “We’re spreading knowledge so that people know. This herbicide was approved by the (Environmental Protection Agency) about a month ago. So this a pretty new thing for agriculture use. It’s going to be expanding pretty dramatically over the next couple of years.”

Another team, including engineering senior Allyse Locker, was tasked with improving the process by which runways at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport are inspected.

Inspections typically look for lighting discrepancies, debris on the runway or even wildlife. The team observed and analyzed the processes to make the system more efficient, speaking to airport personnel for best practices. The team said it created a new standard operating plan for the airport to hopefully reduce issues before departures.

Locker’s group met five times a week at designated times. She said collaborating on the project was a positive team experience because everyone contributed their share.

“We did get to know each other,” she said. “It was a designated time so you knew you were expected to be there. A lot of times you get in group projects and people will just bail. I would say we were able to split up the project evenly. Everyone worked really hard on it. It’s definitely been one of the best projects I’ve worked on.”

Agarwal said the event also offered elementary and high school students the opportunity to explore innovations in engineering. Organizers placed yellow stars next to certain project listings in the event pamphlet to mark those that may appeal to young students.

This year, the students were mostly from Ann Arbor and Detroit schools, but Agarwal said the program is hoping to reach more students through the University's Center for Educational Outreach.

Maxine Wilkins, a fifth-grade student at Carpenter Elementary, attended the event with her class and said she enjoyed seeing the different designs, particularly ones that can help people day to day, including one for blind people.

“There are many engineering designs here and they all have something different to say,” she said. “There was one design over there that I liked. It was a special walking stick that you connect to your regular walking stick. It has a vibration thing next to it that tells if the ground is rough or smooth and slippery. So if there is ice there, then the person who can’t see, will know that there is ice there.”

Wilkins said she would be interested in engineering as a potential field of study.

“If I was going into one of these engineering fields, I would probably go into a field that does what I saw over there — that just helps other people,” she said.