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Innovation Program picks up momentum

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The Latest
Tuesday, March 08, 2011

By Ilie Mitaru

The new Innovation Program in Portland State’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science is already cooking up some interesting projects, including a novel water filtration system, a mechanism for measuring traffic on foot-bridges, and a noise cancellation mechanism for cars.

The Innovation Program launched in January of last year with the mission of giving students hands-on experience in building prototypes that could be used in the real world. The program selected 23 applicants from 41 project proposals. Each team must have at least one student taking an engineering course, and proposals are limited to only one page, says James McNames, director of the program. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible for students to get their ideas out,” McNames says.

Winners receive access to facilities, professors, experts and awards of $1,000 to build their projects. The dollar amount might not sound like a lot, especially for hardware based projects, but says McNames, the little money made a “mind-blowing” difference by helping students purchase components they could otherwise not afford. 

Many of these projects have already put the cash and resources to good use.

Engineering student Peter Kahn and his team have engineered a device for the nonprofit Bridges To Prosperity that tracks foot-bridge usage. Bridges To Prosperity installs footbridges in developing countries, providing rural dwellers access to markets, fresh water, voting stations, schools and other resources. There are two different versions of the device—one that measures weight passing over the bridge and one that uses infrared to measure the heat of pedestrian—which stream data in real time to any location with an Internet connection.

Kahn says tracking will help organizations like Bridges To Prosperity to make the most efficient use of their resources, and have the capacity to demonstrate this use to potential donors. The tracking technologies have been used for a long time in retail outlets in the developed world, says Kahn. “The innovative aspect of it is the implementation in the environment,” says Kahn, referring to the rural, highly impoverished areas where the bridges are installed.

Another project supported through the Innovation Program is an addition to water filtration systems. Many filtration systems clean the water—that is, make it drinkable—without actually capturing all the sediment in the water. The result: water that may be safe to drink but looks dirty. So student Dan Houck and his team, working in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders have come up with a “coagulation system.” The device introduces a chemical early in the filtration stage to coagulate or sink the sentiment to the bottom; allowing only clean water through.

The chemical is the same used in large aquifers, but, Houck says, this is the first time it would be applied to small, stand-alone filtration systems usually found in developing nations.

These projects and 19 more will be presented in September, with prizes awarded to the winners. Renjeng Su, Dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering, says they are looking to create partnerships with the business school and school of design, as well as to connect the program with business leaders from the community.

Unlike many university-affiliated incubators however, the Innovation Program at PSU will remain focused on the educational process of the projects, rather than potential market crossover. Says McNames, “Economic impact, job growth, are benefits I expect to be consequences, outcomes of the program, but the primary goal of the program is student learning.”

Ilie Mitaru is an associate writer with Oregon Business.


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