Category: Undergraduate Students
Features tour of ENG’s new design, manufacturing studio
The Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC) hadn’t yet opened for its inaugural semester, and it already had a wait list of students eager to register for classes in the sleek, glass-fronted Commonwealth Avenue building that not too long ago was the Guitar Center. That bodes well for the College of Engineering and the University officials and corporate sponsors who made the new facility possible.
ENG will host EPIC’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this Thursday, January 23. Among those present will be President Robert A. Brown, ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen, local dignitaries, and key corporate partners, including representatives from principal industry sponsors GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC, and Schlumberger.
Lutchen, who is also an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, says that EPIC’s opening “now begins the opportunity for us to transform our engineering education at the undergraduate level to really create a much more powerfully enabled graduate who understands the process of designing products from conception to deployment.”
Those skills are particularly important, and valuable, now that manufacturing is making a comeback in the United States. US manufacturers have added at least 500,000 new workers since the end of 2009, energy costs have dropped, and labor costs in competing countries such as China and India have been inching upward.
Companies like Apple and GE are bringing high-tech facilities back home from overseas. While a positive development, “the problem is now there aren’t enough engineers trained in highly technological methods,” says Bruce Jordan, ENG assistant dean of development and alumni relations.
EPIC could help fill that void. “We’re hoping to set a standard for the training of engineers for the future manufacturing economy in this country,” says EPIC director Gerry Fine, an ENG professor of the practice.
Funded through the University, ENG alumni and friends, and regional industry, EPIC’s 20,000-square-foot space houses a computer-aided design (CAD) studio, demonstration areas, fabrication facilities, materials testing, and project management software available to engineering students in all specialties — from computer and electrical engineering to biomedical engineering and nanotechnology. The facility has a flexible design and offers students supply chain management software, 3-D printers, robotics, laser processing, and around-the-clock digital access to the studio’s online resources.
A representative from each principal industry sponsor, GE Aviation, Procter & Gamble, PTC, and Schlumberger, will sit on EPIC’s Industrial Advisory Board, whose primary function will be to offer suggestions on how the ENG undergraduate curriculum might be redesigned to better prepare students for employment in the years ahead.
“We want to create as many options for our graduating students as possible,” Fine says. “By teaching them some of the things that regional industry wants, we think we’re giving our students more options. And we’re making our students more desirable to potential employers.”
Representatives from the principal sponsors will also participate in guest lectures and provide case studies and projects, and the companies will offer internship and employment opportunities to qualified students.
While other universities have manufacturing-oriented centers, most focus on basic research, but EPIC allows engineering students to put theory into practice by converting their ideas into products that could one day benefit society.
Fine has given tours of the facility to at least five teams from other universities since June. “We’re not aware of anyone who’s invested in this scale and made this commitment to undergraduate education,” he says.
“When I first heard from Dean Lutchen about the idea of EPIC, I was thrilled,” says Michael Campbell (ENG ’94), executive vice president of PTC’s CAD segment, who will serve on EPIC’s advisory board. “I always felt that my engineering education lacked that real-world perspective, that real-world exposure to the challenges, processes, and complexities of collaboration and the sophistication of tools. Now we have a chance to share all of that with students.”
J. David Rowatt, research director and technical advisor at Schlumberger, echoes that sentiment. “There were so many things I didn’t learn in school that I picked up on the job,” he says. “Some of these are clearly being addressed by what EPIC is trying to do,” which is exposing students to the entire engineering process — from conception and manufacturing to working on deadlines and understanding resource constraints.
Greg Morris, strategy and business development leader for additive manufacturing with GE Aviation, says this generation of students grew up in a world where computers and software were second nature, but tinkering under the hood of a car was not. EPIC will provide engineering students with the hands-on experience that gives them an advantage in the marketplace. “I can’t tell you how much that resonates with an employer,” he says.
Both BU and its partners see EPIC as a win-win. ENG faculty and students will benefit from a revamped curriculum and access to global leaders in innovation and manufacturing, while industry partners will interact with the University’s deep bench of cutting-edge researchers and get exposure to a new crop of engineers.
“If we tap into EPIC,” says Bruno De Weer, the vice president of global engineering at Procter & Gamble, “we can find ourselves connected with another hub of innovation that brings the very best.”
The EPIC ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 23, at 750 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a reception and tours for those invited. The event is not open to the public.
-Leslie Friday, BU Today
When Connor McEwen (ECE ’14) learned about Refresh, an energy-efficient vending machine designed by recent alums from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rhode Island School of Design, he knew this was an idea that showed potential and wanted to invest in it.
Not too many undergraduates have the ability to make a difference in getting a startup off the ground financially, but McEwen isn’t just any student. He’s one of the investment decision makers for the Dorm Room Fund.
The Dorm Room Fund, a student-run venture fund supported solely by Philadelphia-based First Round Capital, allows entrepreneurial students to have $500,000 to use toward investing in student startups over a two-year period. The program has roots in New York, Philadelphia, and Silicon Valley and came to Boston last fall, where members hope to invest in about 25 companies by 2015.
McEwen, who has been passionate about technology all of his life, was one of 11 students chosen to work with the Dorm Room Fund’s inaugural Boston group, who meet weekly at the Cambridge Innovation Center.
When it comes to investment strategy, McEwen said: “I personally am most interested in student-led tech startups that have the potential to really solve a problem and impact how we live our lives. Since our goal is to help students build their companies, I also like companies where I can understand and use the product and therefore help the most.”
McEwen, who is also a member of the BU Entrepreneurship club and runs a BU Startups newsletter, first became interested in entrepreneurship during his freshman year, thanks to his roommate, Nam Chu Hoai (CS ’14), who had previously worked at a startup.
“We started reading about them on a few websites, discussing companies, and working on an idea ourselves,” McEwen said.
He even took a year off to work on that project, Credport. Though he and Chu Hoai eventually realized that the market didn’t need their product, they learned a lot and McEwen called the time “a great experience.”
Today, when McEwen’s not working on the Dorm Room Fund, he’s back at Boston University working on his senior design project. He teamed up with biomedical engineering students in Assistant Professor Ahmad Khalil’s lab to design an LED device that will help improve synthetic biology experiments.
“Our device basically shines an LED light on a well plate, an enclosure holding a bunch of different cell samples, for a programmable duration, which will enable researchers in optogenetics and synthetic biology to run better experiments more efficiently and accurately,” said McEwen.
As a senior design mentor, Khalil has noticed that McEwen has shown great passion when applying his strong technological background toward his research.
“He brings infectious enthusiasm and wonderful ideas to the lab and is never reluctant to seek advice from my graduate students and me,” said Khalil.
Though McEwen initially thought about working on a startup-related project for senior design, he decided instead to focus his research on something he could only do at BU. Through this project, he’s able to utilize his own background in computer engineering and also work with students majoring in electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering.
That being said, his long-term focus remains the same. He doesn’t know exactly where he’ll be when he graduates this spring but he’s confident he’ll be working with a startup.
Interested in learning more about startups or the Dorm Room Fund? E-mail McEwen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
12/3/13: The Boston Globe – “Young college investors back vending machine”
10/29/13: The Daily Free Press – “Starting-up early”
9/10/13: The Boston Globe – “First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund expands to Boston, with initial investments this fall”
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
In 1998, Sam Keene completed his first college experience when he graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. Nearly a decade later, he now also holds a doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering (PhD ’07) and works on the other side of the classroom as an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering at The Cooper Union in New York City.
His job not only entails teaching two or three classes each semester and supervising Master’s Theses and various undergraduate projects; it also demands that he keep up with the latest technology.
“I’m always amazed at how much my students are capable of, so the pressure is on me to keep challenging them with interesting work, whether they are course projects, contests, senior projects or thesis topics,” said Keene. He added that watching his students overcome the research challenges put in front of them is a rewarding experience.
It’s easy to see how Boston University could prepare Keene for teaching in the classroom, but he credits the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department for launching another career as well – communication engineer at The Mathworks Inc. After a few years in the industry, he decided to fully immerse himself in research by going back to school and focusing his studies on wireless communications and networks.
“While doing my Ph.D., I learned from my many advisors and professors how to do research, publish papers, and teach classes,” said Keene. “All of these skills helped me land the job I currently have.”
He credits many faculty members, including Professor Hamid Nawab (ECE), Associate Professor Jeffrey Carruthers (ECE), and Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), for having a great impact on his career. Each had different qualities that Keene wanted to emulate.
“I am so proud of Sam’s progress from Boston University to professor,” said Carruthers. “He was disciplined, doing excellent work and staying on track with his research. Sam and I had many interesting discussions about academic life and finding the right fit between balancing teaching and research.”
Keene hopes to inspire his students in the same manner the ECE faculty inspired him and is even collaborating with a student of Little’s who mentors one of his undergraduates. He may have graduated, but Keene still has a strong connection to his alma mater.
- Chelsea Hermond (SMG ’15)
Goldberg, Wong named to coordinate teaching, recruitment
It’s a fitting acronym: STEM is the basis for budding careers, for the growing of cutting-edge research, and for increased competence across a range of disciplines. While Boston University has long shown a strong commitment to education in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — it has recently launched an initiative to improve that commitment by boosting interdisciplinary cooperation, recruiting more students in underrepresented populations, and arming the University with even more of a competitive edge in seeking outside funding.
Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, recently named two BU faculty members to take STEM to the next level. Bennett Goldberg, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics and a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering, has been appointed director of BU’s STEM Education Initiatives. Joyce Y. Wong, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering, has been named director of a new University effort to advance women in STEM fields.
Goldberg will be responsible for oversight and coordination of efforts to “increase effectiveness of instruction” in STEM subjects, says Morrison in announcing the appointment. “A world-class scientist, innovator, and teacher, who has devoted his career to impactful interdisciplinary scholarship, Professor Goldberg is exceptionally equipped for this responsibility,” she says. The new post includes four major areas of oversight: leading an effort to “articulate the aspirations” of BU faculty for undergraduate STEM education; working with schools and colleges and the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching to advance the “sharing of best practices”; working to boost recruitment of students, including women and minorities, underrepresented in STEM programs; and directing the development, writing, and submission of grants supporting STEM education at the University.
“STEM education at BU has a fair amount of innovation, but we don’t have a really coordinated effort or strategic plan,” says Goldberg. “If you look at what’s happening in higher education in the United States, there are a lot of pressures, and our model for the future must include high-engagement learning — moving away from the traditional talking head at the front of the class.” In STEM education in particular, the talking head model reaches “a very small fraction of our students,” he says.
STEM education at BU is already embracing this move away from the traditional lecture model, but Goldberg will coordinate the establishment of more interactive learning studios, more peer learning, more small seminars like those used in some engineering courses, and more roundtable teaching. “My job is really to figure out what kind of support is necessary and how we can create a collective vision,” he says. “It’s planning, it’s discussing, it’s developing, and it’s implementing.”
Goldberg, who was named BU’s 2013 United Methodist Scholar-Teacher of the Year, has long held an active interest in improving education in math and the sciences. Director of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanobiotechnology since 2004, he earned a bachelor’s from Harvard University and a master’s and a doctorate from Brown University. Of Goldberg’s work cultivating clean energy sources, developing new drug delivery systems, and diagnostic methods, Morrison says that he “has committed himself to breaking boundaries, working across fields of scientific research in a way that pushes the limits of our capabilities.”
Wong is “uniquely positioned to help BU emerge as a leader in addressing the underrepresentation of women” in STEM fields, according to Morrison. She notes that while BU attracts outstanding female students and faculty in these fields, “there is more work to be done both in recruitment and retention and in our endeavors to support their success.” Wong’s undergraduate and doctoral degrees are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the development of biological materials that could aid in detecting cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“I look forward to engaging all members of the BU community and to reaching out to the many people on campus who are running excellent programs at all levels, precollege, undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty, to advance STEM in an equitable manner,” says Wong.
-Susan Seligson, BU Today
Telecommunications companies – those that allow us to talk on the phone, communicate over the Internet and watch cable television – used to operate under the notion that there was an infinite amount of fiber bandwidth available to transmit these signals. Then we moved into the Y2K era.
“There was a big explosion of data around the year 2000,” said Larry A. Coldren, the Fred Kavli Professor of Optoelectronics and Sensors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Computers were also getting faster and faster at this time and the demand for bandwidth was rising quickly.”
Coldren and his team had started looking at photonic integrated circuits (PICs), devices that allow signals to travel on optical waves on semiconductor chips, back in the 1980s and discovered that they could viably be produced much like analogous electronic integrated circuits (ICs) that generally use electrical wires for transferring data.
Last month, he spoke about his research during Boston University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series. He suggested that PICs could be the key component in the future of telecommunications.
Just a couple of decades ago, wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) was introduced to meet the demand for more fiber bandwidth. This method allowed a number of signals to be simultaneously transferred on a single optical fiber. However, at the terminals where the WDM channels must be either combined or separated, the optical and electronic equipment became more and more complex as the channel count and signal speed increased. That’s where Coldren’s research comes into play.
“PICs have the potential of improved performance, reliability and cost while also reducing the size, weight and power of the equipment,” said Coldren.
PICs for various applications have been made using indium phosphide, silica on silicon, polymer technologies, and silicon photonics. Electronic ICs, however, usually use silicon as a dominant ingredient. Coldren’s team currently focuses on a monolithic indium phosphide integration platform.
“Ultimately, we may find that the best results will come from a hybrid solution using more than one of these materials,” said Coldren.
Today, PICs are widely deployed commercially and outperform many discrete device approaches, but Coldren is optimistic that they can work even better in the future and hopefully result in more environmentally friendly supercomputers and data centers.
“Our efforts have always been focused on making PICs very efficient and very fast,” said Coldren. “Now we need to look at how they can be used to create more green data centers.”
Assistant Professor Jonathan Klamkin (ECE), who introduced Coldren at the lecture, previously had an opportunity to study with Coldren while earning his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.
“I benefitted immensely from his guidance and even use his books in my class here,” Klamkin said. “It’s a pleasure having him on our campus.”
Prior to teaching, Coldren worked at Bell Labs, where he studied surface-acoustic-wave signal processing devices and tunable coupled-cavity lasers. He continued his work at UC Santa Barbara, where he has developed more widely-tunable DBR lasers and efficient, high-speed vertical-cavity-surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) in addition to his PIC research.
Coldren is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Optical Society (OSA) and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE).
Coldren’s talk was the third in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The seminars will resume in Spring 2014.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Each day, we find ourselves sharing our personal information across the internet – whether it’s to pay a bill or buy a gift on Amazon.
As we send more of our data through these channels, there is a growing concern about privacy. Earlier this month, a breach at Adobe, for example, impacted more than 38 million users. Cases like this are not uncommon and as a result, cyber security has become a major area of research for electrical and computer engineers.
Last week, Professor George J. Pappas, the Chair of the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Boston University and shared his own work on the topic.
Pappas is looking at how differential privacy, a method that aims to maximize the accuracy of information extracted from databases while also minimizing the chance of records being identified, can be applied to systems like smart grids and intelligent transportation systems.
“Privacy breaches are generally due to side information that a company collects,” Pappas explained. He believes that by using a differentially private mechanism to transfer information, it’ll be possible to hide secure data.
“You’re trying to hide in the noise and make it hard to know who’s who,” he said.
Pappas believes that one of the greatest challenges is figuring out how to give companies like Google and eBay the information they need without the sensitive data they don’t.
An advantage of differential privacy, he said, is that once you indicate a particular segment of information is private, it stays private even after the data is sent to another system. Pappas believes that by adding noise during the streaming process, secure information can be blocked. The trick is figuring out how much noise should be added.
Pappas is a Fellow of IEEE and has received several awards including the Antonio Ruberti Young Research Prize, the George S. Axelby Award, and the National Science Foundation PECASE. In addition to differential privacy, his research focuses on control theory and, in particular, hybrid systems, embedded systems, hierarchical and distributed control systems, with application to unmanned aerial vehicles, distributed robotics, green buildings, and biomolecular networks.
Pappas’s talk was the second in the three-part Fall 2013 Distinguished Lecture Series. The next talk will feature Professor Larry A. Coldren, University of California, Santa Barbara, who will speak on the topic, “Photonic Integrated Circuits as Key Enablers for Coherent Sensor and Communication Systems.” Hear him on Wednesday, November 20, at 4 p.m. in PHO 211.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings and appliances
Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.
Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE), Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE) and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.
Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE) have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.
BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Associate Professor Michael Gevelber (ME, SE), Adjunct Research Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME) and ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.
Smarter Traffic Lights
A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) is testing this system on a model mini-city in his lab.
Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (PhD, SE ’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.
The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.
Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey-based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.
Smarter Central Control
Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Professor Yannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE), codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Professor Assaf Kfoury (CS), are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
-Leslie Friday (Videos by Joe Chan), BU Today
Top-Tier Faculty to Advance High-Impact Field
Synthetic biology brings together engineers, biologists and other life science researchers to conceive, design and build molecular biological systems that rewire and reprogram organisms to perform specified tasks. The field promises not only to yield new insights into biology but also to spark new technologies that could revolutionize healthcare, energy and the environment, food production, materials and global security. Recognizing the wide-ranging potential of synthetic biology and the trailblazing efforts of many of its faculty, the College of Engineering has launched the BU Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi) to advance this emerging discipline.
Poised to take a nationally preeminent role in advancing synthetic biology research, CoSBi unites core engineering faculty members that bridge diverse research interests, including microbial and metabolic engineering, immuno-engineering, cell reprogramming, computer-aided design and automation, single-cell analyses and systems modeling. In addition, the center involves leading researchers across the university with expertise in systems biology, leveraging their ability to reverse-engineer natural biological networks to help in the modeling, design and forward-engineering of synthetic biological networks with novel functions.
“We envision that CoSBI will serve as a focal point for activities in synthetic biology at Boston University and the larger Boston area, and help to advance the field toward applications in biomedical research, healthcare and other areas,” said Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE), one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, who directs the center.
CoSBi is located at 36 Cummington Mall, taking advantage of the newly renovated wet and dry facilities on the second floor and computational space on the third floor. Core faculty include Collins; Assistant Professor Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME), the center’s associate director; Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics); and Assistant Professor Wilson Wong (BME), with 11 associate faculty members drawn from the College of Engineering, College of Arts & Sciences, and School of Medicine.
To advance its research agenda, CoSBi is expected to attract substantial government funding, major industrial collaborators and top-notch graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The center will develop and support large-scale, collaborative projects, organize an annual symposium on synthetic biology featuring prominent researchers from around the world, and host a regular seminar series showcasing research leaders in the field.
To enable students of all levels to learn about the fundamentals and practice of synthetic biology and explore their interests in the intersection of engineering and molecular biology, the center will play an active role in supporting research training, education and outreach activities. Center administrators aim to appoint new research faculty and staff; develop new fellowships for and facilitate mentoring of graduate students and postdoctoral associates; design new courses and produce educational videos; run international synthetic biology competition teams and summer workshops; and build community for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students studying synthetic biology.
“Synthetic biology is reshaping the discipline of biology, and attracting students and researchers with a diverse set of backgrounds,” said Khalil. “A central goal of CoSBi will be to prepare the next generation of synthetic biologists for this multidisciplinary type of research at an early stage, and to challenge them to think conceptually and creatively about how engineering can help in understanding life.”
Each year, the ECE Department requests projects from industry, the government, non-profits, small businesses, and individuals to present to students as part of a year-long, team-based course. Students create a plan for solving the problem, design a solution, test a product, and present a prototype at the end of the spring semester.
Senior design projects give students a chance to work on a task that expands upon traditional classroom assignments and prepares them for future employment and real-world challenges.
Last May, seniors presented their work to ECE professors, alumni, and industry engineers. The top prize was awarded to the team, “Calibration Device for Microarray Slides,” whose members worked with Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME) to develop a system for detection for microarray slides using an Interferometric Reflectance Imaging Sensor. The design has the potential to speed up disease detection in the future.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer customer, have any questions about the project, or would like to discuss potential ideas, please email Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Customers are not required to provide financial support but many have chosen to donate equipment or other resources. Project descriptions will be given to students at the beginning of September.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
ENG Alums’ iPad App Helps Speech-Challenged Communicate
Every year, more than seven million people are affected by conditions that prevent them from speaking or understanding language. The disability may mean that stroke victims can’t tell a nurse that they need to use the bathroom, can’t share with their spouse that they are hungry, or can’t simply ask to please change the channel because they are about to watch a fourth straight episode of Law & Order.
To the rescue comes an iPad app designed by College of Engineering alumni Nick Dougherty, Eric Hsiao, and Gregory Zoeller (all CE ’12). Their creation, called Verbal Care, helps nonverbal patients communicate a desire for things like food, medicine, and pain relief by touching one of the large picture-based icons. After creating a few iterations of the software over the course of a year and testing in beta, the last stage of testing for a computer product, the trio will make the latest version of the app available in the iTunes store August 12.
“Our goal is to bridge the communication gap between patients and caregivers,” says Dougherty, CEO of Verbal Applications, the alums’ new company. “Patients will receive custom care faster, and hospitals will get money back in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements because of higher patient satisfaction scores.”
Verbal Care must be downloaded from the iTunes store and loaded onto an iPad. Once opened, the user is asked, “What would you like to say?” as nine icons pop up on the screen, among them “pain scale,” “food,” “bathroom,” and “entertainment.” Each category is subdivided into requests for certain types of food, for example, or a specific television station. Caregivers, who can receive the request on an iPad, can confirm requests with a “yes or no” module, and the app can also act as a rudimentary translation tool. Based on the needs of the patient, caregivers can add their own text, voice recordings, and images (“If the patient’s favorite food is Oreos, they can add that personal icon,” Zoeller says).
In addition to helping people who have trouble speaking, Verbal Care could one day make a difference for those with aphasia, a complex communication disorder caused most often by stroke. “Aphasia patients often mix up signals,” Hsiao says, “So our app has three different inputs, where they can see the pictures and icons, read the text, and hear audio feedback.”
After being challenged senior year to create a communications device by Theodore Morse, an ENG professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller designed the Verbal Care app as part of ENG’s electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department senior design project. The three, along with former teammates Kenneth Zhong (ENG ’12) and Kholood Al Tabash (ENG ’12), won the ECE department’s Entrepreneurial Award and second place at the ENG Societal Impact Capstone Project Awards last year.
After graduating, Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller formed their own business venture. Their research, shadowing nurses and speech pathologists at Massachusetts General Hospital, revealed some similar devices targeted specifically for aphasia patients, ALS patients, and stroke victims, but with price tags upwards of $7,500. Verbal Care was designed as a far more affordable app for all types of communications disorders. Currently the app is free, but Dougherty says it may be priced at around $10 a month, or $99 a year. The three alums also learned the importance of user-friendly design, which they achieved by using hard contrast, brighter colors, and very simple icons for patients with lower visibility, Hsiao says.
CEO Dougherty continues to meet with speech language pathologists, nurses, and patients to better understand what they need from the product. He also develops relationships with potential investors and hunts for grants. Zoeller, the COO, deals with pricing and projects how much money they will need from investors to become profitable and in what areas they should spend their money. Chief technology officer Hsiao oversees the product’s infrastructure and technology.
This summer, the three quit their jobs as web developers and software engineers to focus full-time on their business. They had plenty of encouragement – Verbal Care was selected both for the School of Management’s 2013 ITEC New Venture Competition, taking the People’s Choice Award, and the MassChallenge, an annual $1 million global accelerator program, two start-up camps where they could get excellent advice from experienced mentors. And while that advice is certainly helpful, Dougherty says, one of the most important lessons was learned while he was still a student.
“You have to be able to totally burn what you have and start over,” says Dougherty, who also founded the popular campus nonprofit Project Mailbox. “We’ve done Verbal over maybe four times. Every time it’s like a phoenix, where it crumbles to ashes and then rises out of the flames. I think there’s a lot to learn from that, and that’s the benefit of being a younger entrepreneur.”
The latest version of Verbal Care will be launched in the iTunes store on August 12. Users can e-mail the company for more information.
-Amy Laskowski, BU Today