Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Working with the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design

This past semester, we had the incredible opportunity to work with freshmen engineering students at Yale University through a course taught by the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design (CEID). Working at the CEID was one of the most exciting experiences I have had yet in academia. It's a large, working space with every kind of tool and machine and computer program you can imagine (think 3-D printers, woodworking tools, fume hoods, sewing machines, etc.), in which students, faculty, and other interested participants can come together and work on interdisciplinary approaches to the center's primary mission-- empowering students to improve human lives through the advancement of technology. 

The course we participated in brought together practitioners from various fields who had problems that needed solving, with engineering students interested in learning how to solve practical problems with innovative solutions. When we heard about this opportunity, we thought, "Boy, do we have problems!" From expensive water quality meters that occasionally get stepped on by large wildlife, to river monitoring needs in a remote environment, we had no shortage of ideas to pitch to the students that we really needed some help on. 

We were incredibly fortunate to have two awesome groups of students pick two of our project ideas to take on for their end-of-semester project. The first group-- comprised of Bryan Duerfeldt, Kendrick Kirk, Tavis Leighton, and Teddy Weisman-- decided to work on our problem of needing real-time data on the river's water level. As water level in the Mara determines water quality and the amount of water available for human extraction, knowing this data on a real-time basis is invaluable. However, commercially available solutions are prohibitively expensive.

The second group-- comprised of Charles Stone, Jack Holds, Brian Clark, and Natalia Dashan-- decided to work on our problem of needing to protect our expensive and fragile water quality meters, which we throw into a river full of really large animals. Last summer, a hippo stepped on the plastic housings we had improvised and cracked it, missing our meter by less than an inch. 

Both groups worked under the guidance of some awesome instructors, including Eric Dufresne, the CEID Director; Larry Wilen, a Design Mentor; and their Teaching Fellow Laura Chavez.

Throughout the latter part of the semester, we met with each group on a weekly basis, describing our problems and the Mara in more detail, hearing their developments on the project, and giving feedback on their progress. 

Chris meeting with the Depth Logger group
 After only about a month, each group had designed and built prototypes of their project idea, using a range of machines and equipment available in the CEID.

Components of the depth logger
 Each group gave a final presentation on their project, including the problem they were addressing, the challenges they faced in solving it (keeping costs low, making it easy to transport, etc.), and then presenting their final product.

The Depth Logger group presenting on their project
The Hippo-Proof Housing group presenting on their project
 It was really amazing the solutions these students came up with and built in such a short amount of time! The Depth Logger group designed a battery-powered ultrasonic depth logger with a SIM card to allow for data uplink to the internet, all inside a cleverly designed waterproof housing.

The Depth Logger group
The Hippo-Proof Housing group designed a meter housing out of aircraft aluminum, which they determined met both weight and strength requirements, with a sieve on one end and a polypropylene funnel on the other end to prevent meter clogging by hippo feces, which can both damage the meter and prevent accurate data collection.

The Hippo-Proof Housing group
Both of these projects addressed serious challenges we face in the field, and provided us with some really cool new equipment we're planning to deploy this field season. Most of all, it was exciting to work with such intelligent and interested students on addressing these unconventional challenges. Thanks so much to all the students and teachers at CEID for working with us on this. Stay tuned on the blog as we deploy these  awesome projects in the field and see how they fare!
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