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ME Project Expo highlights real world work that makes a difference

Projects with an Impact

Nov 20, 2019

Edward Robinson, far right, helps place his 17-year-old daughter, Katie, in a wooden prototype of a jogger students are creating for her. A team of mechanical engineering students, including Erin Wint (left) and Abdullah Sulaiman (middle) are creating a metal jogger for Katie so she can accompany her father on half marathons.


A year after the deadliest wildfire in California history, a team of Cal Poly engineering students has created a robot that can detect burning embers and immediately extinguish them with water, potentially protecting residents and their homes.

“The dangers of a single ember or firebrand are incredible, as evidenced by the spark from a downed power line that caused the Camp Fire,” said Ryan Kissinger, a mechanical engineering senior. “With the right wind conditions, small embers can launch far beyond the heart of the wildfire, starting spot fires in neighboring areas.”

Project EMBER (Economical, mechatronic, burn-extinguishing robot) is one of more than 20 senior projects that will be on display Friday, Nov. 22 during the Mechanical Engineering Department’s fall Project Expo.

The expo includes multiple projects focused on making life better for others, including a jogger designed for a 17-year-old disabled girl so she can go on runs with her father, an electronically cooled pillow for those who suffer from insomnia and a pedaling device that could generate power for Third World countries.

“Engineering students need to understand that their skills can help other people,” said Lee McFarland, a mechanical engineering lecturer and senior project advisor.

The disabled girl, Katie Robinson, has been interested in spending more outdoor time with her father since he began running and participating in half marathons four years ago. Yet, her father has not been able to find a jogger that’s the right size or style for Katie.

“She enjoys being outdoors, being active, and she is very adventurous,” said Edward Robinson, a middle school vice-principal in Fresno. “I know she will love running with me in her new jogger, and it will enhance her quality of life by actively competing in races and ‘earning her finisher’s medal’ just like dad, which she has been referencing a bit over the last several months.”

Katie was born with significant medical conditions and physical abnormalities, primarily involving her legs, feet, and the lack of muscle growth and development, her father said. She has some cognitive deficits as well.

Robinson learned about Cal Poly’s senior projects while reading about Team Joseph – Cal Poly students that have created multiple projects over the years for 25-year-old Joseph Cornelius, who has cerebral palsy. Different teams of engineering students have created three projects that enable Cornelius, of Los Osos, CA, to participate in triathlons with his father.

Once the jogger is delivered, Robinson said he plans to take Katie on a few 5K runs before participating in the California Classic Half Marathon in Fresno on April 6. 

Kylie Fernandez performs a measurement for Project EMBER, designed to spot and extinguish burning embers before they become dangerous wildfires.

The EMBER project, meanwhile, was conceived by faculty members Richard Emberley and John Ridgely in response to the Camp Fire, which resulted in at least 85 fatalities in November, 2018.  

Specifically, the project considered the impact of wildfire embers, which can travel miles in the wind and become large fires upon landing in or near residential areas.

“The issue is that homeowners only have two actions to defend their homes from wildfires,” Kissinger said. “One, staying home to put out potential fires with a hose, which is incredibly dangerous, or, two, leaving their neighborhood, hoping their houses can brave the spread of wildfires.”

The robot prototype his team created is a cylinder-shaped device that pivots with an encoder-controlled motor and uses a thermal camera called a Lepton to detect embers. Once it detects heat, the robot aims a spray nozzle and launches a wall of water up to 25 feet away.

The device checks to ensure the heat has been extinguished, then continues to patrol.

“Mechanical testing proves our concept to be effective,” Kissinger said.


Continue reading Projects with an Impact...
ME students create motorized Advent calendar for popular Cambria Christmas Market

Counting the Days

Nov 14, 2019

Cal Poly engineering students work to install an Advent calendar at the Cambria Christmas Market. Pictured are, left to right, Sigrid Derickson, Oma Skyrus, Danny Clifton and Silvia Calinov.

A team of mechanical engineering students blasted Christmas music on campus as they brainstormed a large, motorized Advent calendar that will be featured at this year’s Cambria Christmas Market.

“It was a holiday jam,” said Sigrid Derickson, a mechanical engineering senior. “Funny thing is, it happened in March. We were sitting around listening to Christmas music, and everyone probably thought we were a bunch of weirdos.”

Eight months later, their efforts will be a new highlight of the eighth annual market, described as a Central Coast “Winter Wonderland.” Based on Christmas markets in Europe that date back to the Middle Ages, The Cambria Christmas Market, housed primarily at the Cambria Pines Lodge, features 2 million lights in dioramas and displays, plus artisan vendors, food, live music and more.

The calendar project is sponsored by the lodge, which operates the market. About five years ago, another team of Cal Poly engineering students built a popular 12 Days of Christmas installation that has been a feature of the market ever since.

“The 12 Days of Christmas is one of our most popular displays,” said Mike Arnold, the market’s coordinator. “We have had to move it a few times to accommodate the groups that gather around each time it goes off.”

With that in mind, the market asked Cal Poly to create another project.

The Advent calendar created by ME students will become a permanent fixture at the Cambria Christmas Market. 

“What they said was, ‘We want an Advent calendar, and it should look like a German village,’” said Lee McFarland, a Cal Poly mechanical engineering lecturer and faculty advisor for the project.

Advent calendars, which offer a fun way to count the days until Christmas, originated in the early 1900s. They typically appear as wall calendars with “windows” that open for each day of the month, revealing a different image. But some calendars get much bigger.

The Cal Poly calendar is massive. It is roughly 14 feet tall, 20 feet long and four feet deep and will feature 25 days represented by boxes. Each box contains a playful diorama, which includes a shooting star, a polar bear snow globe, Santa’s workshop, an ice skater, a hula dancer and other animated scenes of the season. Seventeen boxes feature moving parts, and all play music related to the respective diorama. Songs include such classics as “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

“The whole team is excited to see it in action,” Arnold said. “It is located near our Santa House, so guests will be able to enjoy while they wait to see Santa.”

The Advent calendar created by Cal Poly students will be 14-foot high and 20-foot long, featuring holiday music and moving dioramas.

The project employs mechanical, electrical and audio designs with motors, switching relays and a credit card-size Raspberry Pi computer that uses a programing language called Python. The students manufactured their diorama designs on campus using laser cutters and computer-controlled CNC machines.

While students were given a few project parameters, they devised the final design.

“It really let us use our creative side,” said Derickson, who graduated from Atascadero High School in 2014.

Like the 12 Days of Christmas display, this year’s Advent addition will become a permanent feature of the popular market, McFarland said.

The other mechanical engineering students on the team include: Danny Clifton, from Reno, Nevada; Tyler Koski, from Irvine California; and Oma Skyrus, of San Mateo California. The four students started working on it last January as a senior project. These projects, a requirement for graduation, are designed to give students hands-on experience, said Peter Schuster, a mechanical engineering professor.

“They get to apply what they have learned throughout their education to a specific project,” he said. “The experience forces them to dive deeper into topics in order to get the job done, just as they will as engineering professionals.”

The students took the calendar to Cambria and installed the boxes over the 3-day Veterans Day weekend. This week, they will connect the mechanical parts, lights, music and train set so the entire project will be ready when the market opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 29.

While the calendar marks the beginning of a new attraction for the market, for the team, Saturday means the end of their nearly yearlong effort.

“We put a lot of hours into it,” Derickson said.


Continue reading Counting the Days...
Professor John Seng's robot is becoming a campus celebrity

Herbie Goes to College

Nov 4, 2019


Students returning to campus this fall encountered an unusual new face -- one that never loses its smile.

Professor John Seng has been working on robots for years. But this summer he worked extra hard to finish Herbie, an autonomous robot, in time for the beginning of the new school year. Herbie has already been featured in one news story, and a team of students hopes to increase his profile even more.

Learn more about Herbie in this video -- and check out his Instagram account at Hey_Herbie.

Continue reading Herbie Goes to College...

Building on Success

Oct 30, 2019

This year's winning SURP project was Applications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, sponsored by General Atomics. Students include, left to right, May Kyaw, Runjia Chen and Arielle Sampson. Aaron Drake was the faculty mentor. 


On a bright, summer day north of campus, aerospace engineering student Arielle Sampson raises a pair of binoculars to her eyes, then briefly scans the sky above until she spots an object soaring like an eagle.

The drone, which her team of students launched minutes earlier, will eventually be used to help ag faculty monitor Cal Poly crops, help wildlife researchers monitor movements of cat-like carnivores in the Sierras and help search and rescue workers determine if drones are useful in finding missing persons.

“When I was building remote controlled airplanes in the past, I kind of flew them around and crashed them into trees,” Sampson said. “And that was all fun, but I really like the idea of having an application.”

Sampson’s project for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), Applications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, won first place during the annual SURP Symposium.

Sampson’s team, which also included Runjia Chen and May Kyaw, was one of roughly three dozen that displayed posters highlighting their projects during the  symposium. Instead of going home and working typical summer jobs, students in the program stayed on campus and were paid to perform research in their field of interest.

Expanding SURP, now in its third year, is one of the College of Engineering’s three primary goals. (The others are to build a Center for Creative Engineering and increase diversity and inclusiveness).

“The challenge we have is that our engineering students are in such demand at the junior and senior level, that the younger students don’t have an opportunity to go out and get an internship because all of those are taken,” said Bob Crockett, associate dean for innovation infrastructure. “SURP lets them not only build a resume but also build a set of skills that they might not get in the classroom.”

See a short video on the SURP Symposium here. 


Expanding the popular program, though, requires more sponsors, Crockett said. Currently, the College of Engineering funds roughly half the projects – and the demand was there for many more.

The ten sponsored projects this year cost $149,000. The total number of research grants was $213,000. 

“This year we had to draw the line at 65 students whereas there were 350 students who wanted the opportunity,” Crockett said. “So sponsorships let us offer the same experience to a wider range of students.”

While the main goal is to give students experience with research, many of the projects have potential impact beyond.

Biomedical engineering major Alyssa McCulloch’s project created a model blood vessel that can be used to create medical devices. Kevin Iu, a materials engineering student, worked on a project at the Cal Poly pier that entailed testing metal for artificial reefs. And Abigail Jones, a mechanical engineering student, worked on a project that would make Cal Poly’s solar farm more efficient.

“It’s really important for me to be involved in a project that makes a difference for Cal Poly and California and to show that we as a university need to think about these things for our future,” she said.

After the 8-week program concluded, students created posters and videos summarizing their projects, then attended the SURP symposium – a showcase for the roughly 30 projects – at the Advanced Technologies Lab.

Roger Benham, who sponsored the artificial reef project, met with his team there. A Cal Poly graduate, he knows how difficult it is to get meaningful work over the summers.

“I remember being a student and not being able to get internships and working at a bike shop or a plating shop or construction jobs over the summer,” said Benham, a San Diego resident who is filling in as a lecturer in the materials engineering department this quarter.

The artificial reef business he launched could have many uses, including providing a defense against beach erosion. Iu, who is interested in environmental issues, was immediately drawn to the prospect of making a difference.

“Knowing that I can have an impact as an undergraduate student doing research was really fulfilling.”

Second place in the SURP content went to Rachel Potratz, a materials engineering student, for her project, Silicone Manifold for the Boundary Layer Data System, while computer science student Alec Williams was awarded third place for his project, Emergency Landing Guidance System.

Continue reading Building on Success...
MATE chair has more than 700 species of cacti. See our photo gallery.

Cactus Keeper

Oct 17, 2019


Click on the image to see larger images in this gallery. 


Trevor Harding is very familiar with the downside of being an avid cactus collector.

"I probably have spines in my fingers right now," said Harding, with a laugh. "I find them all the time. I wear welder's gloves, and I use long tweezers and forceps that they use in surgeries, to try to hold the plants, but I still get spines constantly."

With dozens of cacti under grow lights in his campus office and hundreds more in the sun surrounding his Templeton home, Harding, the Materials Engineering Department chair, doesn't hide his hobby. What he jokingly refers to as "the Madness" -- he now has nearly 700 species of the succulent -- began shortly after arriving to teach at Cal Poly in 2007. On a camping trip to Death Valley, Harding was intrigued by a small spiny plant with vibrant purple flowers he noticed thriving in the heat. 

"We came across these plants called the Engelmann's Hedgehog cactus that were about the craziest thing I'd ever seen," he said. "Coming from the Midwest, I hadn't seen a lot of cactus, and I just thought it was so cool and wanted to know more. I got hooked."

Harding, who earned his doctorate in materials and science and engineering from the University of Michigan, is particularly fascinated by the plants' unique structure and design. He said the spines serve several functions aside from protecting the plants from herbivores.

"The spines primarily provide shade from the sun, which is seriously important when they are small juvenile plants," he said. "They also serve as condensing surfaces to help collect water from the mist and fog. Evolution has essentially designed these incredibly sophisticated and successful organisms. It blows my mind -- just really cool."

Continue reading Cactus Keeper...

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

Project Posters: 

SURP 2019 Gallery: 

Summer Undergraduate Research Program Symposium

  • Friday, October 11, 2019

  • 3:00 - 5:00 PM

  • Building  7 (ATL)

The Symposium featured a fun and informative poster session where students and faculty of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) shared their work.

Event flyer (PDF)

Watch 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...


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