By Lorraine Longhi
Walking down the hallway of ASU’s Polytechnic Campus Tech Center, one’s eye is quickly drawn to the posters lining the walls. The boards are covered with diagrams and summaries of numerous projects, whose focus runs the gamut from agribusiness to engineering to aviation.
Once inside the startup labs at the Tech Center, the process of the engineers who work on these projects is brought into view.
With multi-colored bean bags scattered throughout and glass walls erected for a hasty scribbling down of formulas, the space is obviously an impetus for creativity. The results of the creativity fostered here can be seen in the school’s iProjects.
The iProjects at ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation are a series of undertakings each year by seniors in the engineering disciplines at Polytechnic.
The students tackle real-world problems presented each year by industry partners throughout the East Valley and work together in teams throughout the academic year to come up with a solution to the challenge placed before them.
“The concept of the entire college is that we’re one, very interdisciplinary and two, engaged with industry,” said Mitzi Montoya, vice provost and dean of CTI. “Regardless of what one’s field might be that means these projects are solving real problems in your field of study.”
Industry sponsors of these projects include Honeywell, Go Daddy, town of Gilbert, Raytheon, General Dynamics and the Salt River Project.
These sponsoring partners determine the requirements of the project they propose and commit to funding of materials, labs, equipment and other related expenses.
Students are placed with a team after their respective strengths and skill sets are taken into consideration, as well as their top picks among the different projects.
For Tim Singh, a senior electronic systems engineer at CTI, an internship spanning three and a half years at the Salt River Project was a deciding factor in becoming involved with their solar hot water project this year.
“I’ve loved every single minute of interning at SRP,” Singh said. “I’ve loved what I’ve done there and I’m hoping to translate my undergraduate and graduate degrees into a career there.”
The projects themselves are representative of the hands-on approach to problem solving the college is trying to nurture among its students.
Exposure to companies through the iProjects helps to establish a relationship with businesses, as well as for these partners to see the skill level the students possess at this stage in their careers.
“These companies get to use that time that you’re working on their project to really look at that talent that’s coming up through the engineering schools,” Singh said. “The students are actually thinking and using what they’re learning to apply it to a real-world problem.”
In addition to encouraging practical, hands-on approaches to problem solving, the college also looks to implement concepts of sustainability into every curriculum at the school.
Kiril Hristovski, senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, acts as a faculty mentor to the groups, and helps students become aware of the impact their designs have on the community.
“It’s a form of a philosophy, a way of thinking that we’re trying to embed in our curriculums,” Hristovski said. “To teach students to think along that line of how they can prove that their projects, their ideas are better for the environment and the community.”
This mindset can be seen through a project undertaken by the town of Gilbert, a waste digester that uses anaerobic digestion to break down waste in dog parks.
The project, which began as an effort to help Gilbert reduce the volume of waste left behind in parks, also seeks to decrease the quantity of waste entering landfills.
In doing so, the project will also minimize the generation and release of methane gas, a negative greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
“When we sat through the presentations about the different iProjects, this one seemed the most practical and realistic,” said Sean Burris, a senior on the Gilbert team. “Out of all the projects that I saw, I thought this was one that I could actually contribute to.”
The project has garnered a fair amount of media coverage for the town since it began; the group is also focused on integrating an educational component at Cosmo Dog Park to alert the town on ways it can contribute.
The project is tied right into the focus on sustainability Polytechnic encourages, as environmental conservation and zero waste initiatives are something Gilbert is staunchly advocating.
“In the classroom they get books, but with this project they get the real feel of dealing with a municipality and going through the process of making this plan effective,” said Louis Andersen, solid waste division manager for the town.
While each group in the iProjects is assigned a faculty mentor, the process is largely student run, as meetings with faculty usually occur only once a week.
“We’re trying as mentors to minimize our role as supervisors or managing in a classical way,” Hristovski said. “The ability to work as a team, to delegate and to coordinate, they all have drawn from their strengths and capabilities and made this team work as a well-oiled machine.”
While the immediate impact of the student involvement with these industries is apparent throughout the East Valley, certain projects may also impact individuals halfway across the world.
One such project arose in response to a U.S. Department of Defense challenge to assist in protecting combat personnel deployed to remote mountains in Afghanistan.
Outposts are generally miles away from serviceable roads, so supplies are typically air dropped into the location.
The challenge was undertaken by General Dynamics, who assembled a 10-student team to assist in creating a completely self-sustaining, zero-environmental impact combat outpost that would support the needs of up to 25 soldiers for 90 days.
“General Dynamics put on a very impressive presentation,” said Ryan Wrobel, an engineering senior on the General Dynamics team. “This was everyone’s first choice. The professors chose us based on past experiences in working with us and decided who was the best fit.”
A group of engineers with varying backgrounds and skill sets were chosen to cater to the wide range of components required in the design process of the outpost.
Ron Wood, enterprise manager and chief engineer of the EDGE Innovation Network at General Dynamics, remarked on the students’ ability to look for systematic solutions to the challenge at hand.
“The students bring fresh perspective, they don’t bring any pre-conceptions about the problem or the solution,” Wood said. “They bring a breadth of knowledge that we think applies to system level solutions.”
The outpost was unveiled to the media at ASU’s “NetZero at the Tactical Edge” conference at the Polytechnic campus on Feb. 13.
A central point for academia and industry to converge, the Polytechnic campus has grown exponentially since it opened in 1996.
The strides made by the school in the last decade have connected students to the business sector of the East Valley and cemented its status as a true polytechnic: an institute of technology and innovation.
The benefits gained from the collaboration between CTI, the sponsors and students not only allow opportunities for all sides to gain creative expertise from each other, but also deepens the curriculum for the college as a whole.
“Both (the students and businesses) are critical to our joint future,” said Dean Montoya. “We need students that are fully capable of entering the workforce as critical thinkers and problem solvers, and the community has problems that need to be solved.”
“It’s one of those rare win-win scenarios that we’ve created, and it’s a highly innovative model, and we look forward to continuing to expand it.”