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Making a Difference

Oct 9, 2019

Peter Way, with his service dog, Rory.


Years after he was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade, Peter Way said he was dangerously close to becoming another suicide statistic. But a dog named Rory helped the Army veteran from Georgia regain his life.

Now he’s hoping Cal Poly students will make Rory’s life a little easier by creating a more accessible vehicle ramp.

“If you can help me out, you’d be affecting two lives,” he told students in a video message. “Rory will last a lot longer. It’s about $50,000 to train a service dog, and Rory is extra, extra special.”

Way was one of multiple veterans who offered challenges to students through the Quality of Life Plus (QL+)  program, which pairs vet needs with impactful student senior projects.  The program was launched at Cal Poly by alumnus Jon Monett (Industrial Engineering, ’64) just over a decade ago. Since then, the program has expanded to several other universities throughout the country.

The challenges are issued to students at the beginning of the fall quarter, when students can bid on which projects they wish to work on. This year interdisciplinary teams were formed for five challenges, while teams of mechanical engineering students were formed for four others.

Here are some of the highlights of the latest challenges:

Service Dog Ramp

After Way was wounded by shrapnel in Afghanistan, the now-retired Army major endured 12 years of infections.

“The infections ate my leg up,” he told students. “In 2015, after 24 surgeries, I elected to have my leg amputated above the knee. So this is my life now.”

Throughout his recovery, the emotional pain matched his physical complications.

In January 2014, however, he was matched up with Rory, a black Labrador provided by America’s VetDogs. Service dogs like Rory are trained to calm vets, even waking them during nightmares that are common amongst those with PTSD.

Once Rory joined him, Way’s life quickly changed, his wife proclaiming, “I have my old husband back.”

“He helps me get around,” Way said in his video. “Rory goes everywhere with me, which includes riding in my vehicle.”

But Rory, now 7, has to jump into his lifted Toyota Tacoma truck. Commercial ramps are too steep for Rory, who will find it even more challenging as he ages. So Way asked students to create a less steep ramp, without too many adjustments, that will take up minimal space in his truck.

In a separate challenge, Way asked students to create a wheelchair lift that can fit in the cab of his truck.

Backpacking Prosthetic

Cassie Perando grew up wanting to be a doctor – but wound up becoming a nuclear electrician’s mate on the USS Nimitiz, from 2005-2012. After her Navy service, she suffered a traumatic amputation to her left arm, above the elbow, in a vehicle rollover accident.

Now the owner of a farm in Oregon, Perando has two challenges: First, the avid hiker is asking for a prosthetic arm that will allow her to carry a backpack.

With her current prosthetic, backpacks are uncomfortable and pinch her skin. She would also like the prosthetic to have a more camping-friendly terminal device – the feature at the end of the prosthetic that functions as a hand.

“I have a hard time fishing and getting in and out of my tent while I’m backpacking,” she said in her video message.

As a farmer, she also would like a terminal device that allows her to hold small items and grasp various tools.

“Something that would make it easier to hold screws for screwing, to clamp on to things with more force than this hook,” she said, pointing to her current terminal device.


Surfing Foot

Cummings, third from left, poses for a shot with one of the QL+ student teams.

After serving two tours of combat duty in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, former Marine Dana Cummings lost his leg as a civilian in California.

The 2002 accident occurred in a 1976 Volkswagen van Cummings had painted like the Mystery Machine from the Scooby-Doo cartoons.  Cummings’ left leg was broken in 17 places, and it eventually had to be amputated.

As part of his recovery, Cummings, who lives in San Luis Obispo County, took up surfing and eventually co-founded AmpSurf, a surf clinic for people with disabilities. He's also a competitive surfer and a member of the U.S. Surfing Team, who was recently invited to compete in the Japan Open Adaptive Surf Contest, along with contests in Hawaii, England and Wales. 

Cummings demonstrated how his prosthetic slips in a video made for students.

Cummings, now the president of AmpSurf, has three challenges, including a prosthetic foot that would have better surface contact with his surfboard. His current foot slips when he tries to  pop up to his feet.

A better foot, he said, “would allow me to stay lower in my stance and be able to maneuver the board better in the waves.”

He would also like a more durable shell for his prosthetic foot (his current ones only last 2-3 months), and he would like students to create a surfboard sled for his AmpSurf camps.

Currently, attendees with paralysis have to be rolled to the beach in a wheelchair. A sled would allow them to be rolled to the water on top of a board.

“It’s just an easier transition versus using a beach wheelchair all the way into the water and doing the transition in the water,” he said.







Continue reading Making a Difference...
James H. Dickerson

Using Science for Good Every day

Oct 3, 2019

James H. Dickerson

Chief Scientific Officer, Consumer Reports

Printable Event Flyer (PDF)

  • Thursday, October 10
  • 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM
  • Advanced Technologies Laboratories (ATL/Building 7)


An inventive leader with an extensive research and communications track record in the physical sciences, James H. Dickerson joined Consumer Reports in January 2017. As the organization’s first Chief Scientific Officer, he is responsible for scientific and technical oversight of all relevant CR activities. An internationally recognized expert in nanoscience and electrochemistry, he has more than 15 years of experience effectively translating scientific concepts for academic, industrial, government and public stakeholders.

In 2019, Dickerson was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society for his longstanding contributions to physics diversity through mentoring, outreach and leadership to assure quality science continues to underpin all of Consumer Reports’ product evaluations.

Prior to joining CR, Dickerson served as the Assistant Director of the Department of Energy’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory. There, he established strategic partnerships with early stage tech startups, Fortune 500 companies and R1 research universities in renewable energy and nanotechnology. Dickerson earned his B.A. in physics from Amherst College in Massachusetts and his Ph.D. in physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.



Continue reading Using Science for Good Every day...
Collage of SURP students

SURP Symposium 2019

Oct 2, 2019

Join us for the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Program Symposium!

  • Friday, October 11, 2019

  • 3:00 - 5:00 PM

  • Building  7 (ATL)

The Symposium will feature a fun and informative poster session where students and faculty of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) will share their work. Light refreshments will be served.

Event flyer (PDF)

See videos of the featured projects:



Continue reading SURP Symposium 2019...

Computing for All

Oct 2, 2019



Lubomir Stanchev, a professor in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department, points to a laptop while working with students on a project with the California Energy Commission and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. 


With more than $430,000 in new grants, Cal Poly plans to introduce computing to more students campus-wide, which is expected to add needed diversity to computer science courses.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Cal Poly’s College of Engineering, along with other community colleges and universities, a total of $1.55 million for what will be a collaborative effort.

One grant, from the NSF program Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Computing in Undergraduate Education (IUSE: CUE), will help develop and pilot a Computing for All course sequence at Cal Poly, the lead campus, and its partner institutions, which include UC Santa Barbara, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the College of Charleston. The proposal is designed for students who traditionally do not take computing coursework in college.

“The basic idea is to create a new course that would allow for broad participation in computation from across campus,” said Bruce DeBruhl, an assistant professor in Cal Poly’s Computer Science and Software Engineering Department (CSSE). “There will be a little programming, but it’s primarily not a programming class.”

CSSE faculty members Zoë Wood and Aaron Keen in computer science will lead the design of the course, which will explore how students should think about computers, with an ethical component designed by philosophy faculty member Zach Rentz.

“The idea of doing computing without considering the ramifications to society, to individuals and to the world is dangerous,” DeBruhl said, noting that biases exist in algorithms just as they do in human behavior. “And because of that it is really important in designing this course that we work with people who are experts in the field of how to make ethical decisions in a digital world.”

Increasingly more careers are using computing, DeBruhl said – from ag professionals moving toward automation and artists using digital means for art to sociological researchers who use statistical computations.

While that course will stress the foundations of computer science, the second grant, from the NSF program titled Harnessing the Data Revolution (HDR): Data Science Corps (DSC), is expected to fund a Computing for All course stressing the computational aspects of data analysis and statistical inference, said Alexander Dekhtyar, a professor in the CSSE department and co-principal investigator for both grants.

“The two proposals have a nice synergy when it comes to ‘Computing for All’ coursework development,” Dekhtyar said.

UC Santa Barbara is the lead on the HDR grant, which includes partners Santa Barbara City College and CSU-San Bernardino.

For both grants, the schools will work together and share information.

Extending computing courses to students outside of the College of Engineering is likely to add more diversity to the field, said Dekhtyar  – priorities for both the CSSE department and Cal Poly.

The HDR grant also forms a Central Coast Data Science Partnership, promoting data science through academic scholarships and an upper division course. Meanwhile, Cal Poly, which already features a data science capstone, will assist UC Santa Barbara in creating one.

That grant addresses students who plan to pursue careers in data science, those who conduct research in their field and want additional data science training and newer students who have no data science background.

Jonathan Ventura (CSSE) is the primary investigator for the HDR grant, with co-PI’s Dekhtyar, Foaad Khosmood (both CSSE), Hunter Glanz and Dennis Sun (Statistics). Lubomir Stanchev (CSSE) is senior personnel.

DeBruhl is the PI for the CUE grant, with Dekhtyar, Keen, Ventura, and Wood as co-PI’s.

The NSF is a federal government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering.




Continue reading Computing for All...
MATE Chair Trevor Harding has over 700 species of cacti at his home and office.

Cactus Keeper

Sep 30, 2019

Trevor Harding, chair of the Materials Engineering Department, has become an avid cactus collector, with more than 700 cacti species in his home and office. See what motivates this hobby in this CENG Closeup.

Continue reading Cactus Keeper...
Cal Poly's human-powered vehicle team breaks collegiate speed record in Nevada.

Record-breaking Run

Sep 16, 2019

On its last possible run, a human-powered vehicle created by a team of Cal Poly engineering students broke the American collegiate speed record Saturday, setting a mark that hadn’t been bested in nearly three decades.


The new record, 63.68 mph, was set during the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13. The previous record was 61.29 mph, set by a team from UC Berkeley in September, 1992.


A human-powered vehicle is any vehicle powered by muscular strength. The most common HPV is a bicycle. Cal Poly’s HPV, named Ambition, competed against other enclosed recumbent bicycles that were designed, built and ridden by students. Professional teams also competed in separate categories.


Ambition was tailored made for its driver, Josh Gieschen, a biochemistry major from Davis, California.


“We are excited to continue improving and come back even better next year -- but first, we can all take a well-deserved break.”

Battle Mountain is an optimum location for the event because of its thin air at 4,619 feet, which reduces aerodynamic drag. Riders travel down a 5-mile stretch outside of the town on State Route 305, on what organizers boast is one of the straightest, flattest and smoothest roads in the world, reaching their maximum velocity before being timed over a 200-meter distance.

The object of the event is to make the most aerodynamically efficient vehicles possible. Meanwhile, the technologies used for the human-powered vehicles can apply directly to all forms of transportation.

Ambition is a front-wheel-drive bike covered with a bullet-shaped shell, made out of carbon fiber and Kevlar, to maximize aerodynamic performance. Members of the Cal Poly team split into subgroups specializing in different areas, such as the shell and drive train. Mechanical engineering seniors Fromm of Seattle and Michael Juri of Fremont, California, developed the drive system.

While Cal Poly has had a human-powered vehicle team since 1978, this was the first time it attempted to break the record.  After working on the vehicle for a year, the team had to make multiple significant changes in the days leading up to the race, adding a windshield and fixing a chain that repeatedly fell off.

“We had issues, but we knew we had time to fix them,” said Kyra Schmidt, the manufacturing lead.

The day before leaving for Nevada, though, they had a promising test run, Schmidt said, giving them confidence.

Still, there would be other factors – some out of their control. To qualify for a record, the wind can’t exceed be 3.7 mph. Some years, it’s simply too windy for anyone to qualify, Fromm said.

During the week, Ambition actually surpassed the record Thursday, reaching 66.43 mph. But the wind speed disqualified it as a record-breaking run.

As the final day approached, wind was forecast to be above 3.7 mph in the evening. But the Cal Poly team had a window of opportunity earlier in the day.

“It was literally our last chance,” Fromm said.

Gieschen got off to a good start.

The so-called “motor,” who made 10 runs over the week — often racing twice a day — was tired and battling a cold. But his speed continued to increase until finally exceeding the 27-year record with “legal wind.”

And when it was over, Gieschen dramatically crashed at around 50 mph, the vehicle rolling over roughly three times.

Fortunately, Fromm said, Ambition was well built, and safety measures worked.

“Not a single thing broke on the bike,” he said.

Gieschen walked away with just a couple of small bruises.

“We are all super proud of everything Josh and the team accomplished,” said Schmidt, a mechanical engineering senior from Irvine, California.

Next year, the team is looking at 70 mph, she said – and, once again, she’s confident they can do it.

“We are excited to continue improving and come back even better next year -- but first, we can all take a well-deserved break.”

Continue reading Record-breaking Run...
Students in a lab

Cal Poly Engineering Ranks Among Tops in Nation

Sep 11, 2019

The Cal Poly College of Engineering’s emphasis on preparing today’s students to solve tomorrow’s global challenges continues to garner attention, most recently when U.S. News & World Report ranked one of the college’s departments as the top specialty program in the nation.  

The annual America’s Best Colleges guidebook, intended to help students and parents craft a list of potential colleges, named Cal Poly’s industrial and manufacturing engineering program No. 1. In addition to the best in the nation nod, the computer engineering; mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering programs all ranked No. 2; and civil engineering ranked at No. 3 in the country.

“There are so many amazing things happening in the College of Engineering,” said Amy S. Fleischer, dean of the college. “Our programs are providing Learn by Doing experiences, leading to student projects that are changing the world. Our faculty are attracting major research grants which will lead to significant  breakthroughs in both applied research and in engineering education.  There is just no limit to what Cal Poly Engineers can accomplish, and this ranking shows that.”

The College of Engineering was ranked the eighth best undergraduate program in the nation and received the top ranking within California.  

The College of Engineering includes roughly 6,000 students; more than 80 state-of-the-art classrooms, laboratories and workspaces; and roughly 80 student clubs. Cal Poly Engineering graduates are highly respected and recruited by some of the best-known companies in the U.S., such as Lockheed Martin, Google, Boeing, Cisco, Northrop Grumman, Apple, Tesla Motors, and many state and federal agencies.

Overall, Cal Poly was named the best public, master’s-level university in the West for the 27th straight year and ranked fourth overall in the West — up eight spots from last year’s rankings. Cal Poly also remained the Best in the West for Most Innovative Schools — institutions making the most impactful improvements in curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.

The U.S. News ranking comes on the heels of Forbes once again naming Cal Poly the top public masters-level university in California within the magazine’s annual list of Top 25 public and private universities in the West.


Cal Poly's human-powered vehicle team is shooting for a speed record in Nevada. (See video.)

Built for Speed

Sep 10, 2019


A team of Cal Poly engineering students has headed to Nevada, where they think a bicycle they designed can top a record-breaking speed of 61 mph.

Cal Poly’s Human-Powered Vehicle Club has been around since 1978, but this is the first time they’ve strived to break the American collegiate record of 61.3 mph. They will attempt to break that mark, set by UC Berkeley, at the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, which lasts through the week.

Learn more about the human-powered vehicle and the team in this video. 

Continue reading Built for Speed...
$5 Million NSF Award Will Strengthen Local Community College Pipeline to Cal Poly and Increase Diversity

Pipeline to Cal Poly Engineering

Sep 9, 2019

A $5 million award from the National Science Foundation will help increase diversity in engineering by strengthening the pipeline from two local community colleges to Cal Poly’s College of Engineering.

The NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant is structured to increase access to engineering careers for low-income, academically talented students with a demonstrated financial need. ENGAGE, an acronym for “Engineering Neighbors: Gaining Access, Growing Engineers,” results from a partnership between Cal Poly, Allan Hancock College and Cuesta College and will launch with scholarships this fall. The three schools collaborated on this grant application for more than two years. At Cal Poly, ENGAGE is an initiative in the College of Engineering and the Center for Engineering, Science & Mathematics Engineering (CESAME).

The NSF funding will provide 2-year scholarships to 50 students at Cuesta College and at Allan Hancock College (100 students total). All students from the Allan Hancock and Cuesta ENGAGE cohorts who transfer to Cal Poly’s College of Engineering are then eligible for up to three additional years of scholarship support.  Individual students may be awarded up to $45,400 over a 5-year period.

“This award will help remove the financial barriers for some of our talented students,” said Amy S. Fleischer, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Engineering. “By providing opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds to earn engineering degrees, this grant will help build the technical workforce that California needs.”

Robert Curry, associate superintendent and vice president of academic affairs at Allan Hancock, said the grant will help community college students further their education.

“Hancock is very excited to be a part of this grant, which will expand opportunities for our engineering students,” he said. “Thanks to the NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant, these students will receive additional support and resources to achieve their goal of attaining a four-year-degree and pursuing a career in engineering.”

As part of its efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, Cal Poly’s College of Engineering has worked to strengthen the pipeline from community colleges, which tend to be more diverse. At Allan Hancock, for example, over 55 percent of students are Latinx as are over 33 percent of students at Cuesta.

“To develop the details of the program, ENGAGE team members from Allan Hancock College, Cuesta College and Cal Poly utilized our shared hopes for low-income, academically talented students who begin their engineering path at community college and our shared analysis of barriers to success,” said Dominic Dal Bello, engineering professor and Mathematical Sciences chair at Allan Hancock College.

In addition to offering scholarships, ENGAGE includes a research component, allowing the schools to advance understanding of the strategies that affect recruitment, retention, graduation, and entry into the STEM workforce or graduate education.

“We have an opportunity to learn from ENGAGE about how to increase inclusivity and equity in engineering education and for California community college transfer students,” said Jane Lehr, the multi-institutional consortia principal investigator (PI) for the project, who is also a professor in Ethnic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies and an Inclusive STEM Initiatives Fellow in the Cal Poly College of Engineering, College of Science and Mathematics, and College of Liberal Arts in 2019-20.

The community colleges have strong engineering programs, making the transition to Cal Poly smoother, said Jeff Jones, an engineering professor at Cuesta College. Some Cuesta students are concurrent Cal Poly students, he said, and most Cuesta engineering faculty also teach or have taught at Cal Poly.

“This helps make the transition to the university easier since they will already know someone at Poly,” he said. “And this also gives our students the knowledge of what caliber to expect when they transfer.”

Cuesta College currently has 618 students who have indicated they are seeking an associate’s degree in engineering and 241 pursuing an A.S. in computer science. At Allan Hancock College, 309 students have identified engineering as their major, and 207 computer science.  

There are many reasons students begin their studies at community colleges, including family responsibilities, financial factors, and/or a need to strengthen their advanced math education.

“College education is a smart decision, and we meet our students where they are at,” said John Cascamo, dean of Workforce & Economic Development at Cuesta College.  ”Whether they are already college proficient or not, we can develop them in ways larger institutions aren’t always equipped. Cuesta has a comprehensive engineering programs that prepares students for success; this grant builds upon our strengths and increases the opportunities for our students.”

Transfer students accustomed to studying beside a larger percentage of underrepresented students might have difficulty adjusting, said Dal Bello, from Hancock. But ENGAGE includes a plan to address possible feelings of isolation after they transfer to the less diverse Cal Poly. ENGAGE students and their mentors will participate in an assets-focused training titled Strengths Training from a Social Justice Perspective, which will include discussions on topics such as power, privilege, oppression and social identity, noting how those concepts operate and cause barriers to student success in higher education.

“In addition to creating more paths to Cal Poly, we also plan to retain and graduate students on time,” Fleischer said, noting that transfer students typically fare very well at Cal Poly. “The training and mentorship built into the award will help make ENGAGE students adjust and adapt easily to the demands at Cal Poly while also preparing them for challenges they might face after graduation.”

Continue reading Pipeline to Cal Poly Engineering...
New NSF grant will help assess CENG student mental wellness and develop plans to improve it

Engineering Wellness

Sep 5, 2019

For engineering students, all-nighters and long hours in labs can be seen as a badge of honor, said Andrew Danowitz, an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department.

But that drive to excess is one of the many factors that can impact mental wellness.

“As an undergraduate and graduate student, I viewed academic success as a key part of my identity,” he said. “And I witnessed many people – peers and myself – burn out trying to achieve academic perfection.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently funded Danowitz’s proposal to study mental wellness in engineering – a project that Danowitz expects to lead to wellness action plan.

The project officially began this month.

“We have funding for at least three years,” Danowitz said, “and we expect to collect a wealth of data over that period.”

While Cal Poly has collected data on student wellness, Danowitz was particularly interested in engineering students. So he collaborated with Kacey Beddoes, project director for San Jose State’s Research Foundation and College of Engineering Dean’s Office. Along with Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, director of counseling services at Cal Poly’s Student Affairs, the trio will conduct research on engineering student wellness with surveys and in-person interviews over the next three years. Students are expected to assist with data collection, data analysis and publishing.

The study will follow the same group of participants over that 3-year span, which will be incorporated with information gleaned from 10 partner institutions to see whether mental wellness significantly changes as students progress through their engineering programs. The researchers will also look to see which mental wellness indicators, if any, are most closely tied to student retention and success.

Both Danowitz and Beddoes were awarded with separate budgets of $174,000 for the collaboration.

“Based on our findings, we plan to develop recommendations for university faculty, students and administrators to maximize mental wellness and student success for engineering students,” Danowitz said. “We also plan to work our findings into a model of student retention in an effort to help guide future studies in the area of engineering education.”

Increasing diversity and inclusion is one of the College of Engineering’s three main goals in the current capital campaign, and resources have already been dedicated toward that. This study, Danowitz said,  could help promote diversity and inclusion on campus.

“Engineering suffers from chronically low retention rates among students from all backgrounds,” Danowitz said. “If this study shows that mental wellness is linked with retention overall, then we’ll be providing college and universities with a new set of tools to help graduate a diverse class of engineers.”





Continue reading Engineering Wellness...


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