UC Merced innovations all seen as a big win

Rapper MC Hammer part of judging panel

abutt@mercedsunstar.comMay 10, 2012 

Solar-powered farm equipment.

Almond byproducts as biofuels.

Reducing noise in neonatal intensive care units.

New valves to improve blood flow for newborns.

These were just some of the cutting-edge projects unveiled by UC Merced engineering and management students Wednesday at the Innovate to Grow competition.

Engineering students Gabriel Avila, Hien Lu, Adrian Garcia and Sheena Truong were the winners of the competition, which gives students the opportunity to work with businesses to solve different real-world engineering challenges. The management students on the winning team were Jonathan Gutierrez, Sahana Ashok Nayak, Anastasia Volnova and Jared Calinisan.

In second place was the team with a way to reduce noise in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Children's Hospital Central California in Madera, while third place went to a team that would use reclaimed water for irrigation and landscaping from the city's wastewater treatment plant. Fourth place went to the team that came up with a solar system to purify drinking water for the San Joaquin Valley, according to school officials.

The groups shared the $5,000 grand prize.

The projects were judged by a six-member panel that included former rapper MC Hammer, who sits on the university's Board of Trustees.

Avila, 23, and his teammates were asked to redesign the Children's Hospital n Madera's valve system for checking oxygen levels in the blood of newborns, which is used to draw blood to see if they are getting enough oxygen.

The system was susceptible to blood sedimentation because of buildup in the valves, which could lead to blood clotting, said Avila, a mechanical engineering senior.

The group came up with a "Y" shaped valve so blood wouldn't have to stop, and build up would be eliminated, Avila explained. "It creates a smoother flow for the blood to go in," he said.

The valve can also be used on older patients. The team has submitted a patent for the project.

Dan Hirleman, the dean of engineering at UC Merced, said such projects give students real-world, hands-on experience in applying their engineering knowledge.

To receive an engineering degree, students had to finish what's called a Capstone project, pulling together everything they'd learned in four years and presenting it during the competition.

The 14 teams were judged based on pitches made to judges in an elevator on campus, posters describing their project, the presentations and videos.

Hammer said the ideas from the students would either have an entrepreneurial or consumer benefit. "It's a fundamental part of moving from creating a product to a company," Hammer said, adding that all the teams were "winning" teams.

One team -- Roy Gore, Michael Katz, Janna Rodriguez and Pedro Contreras -- was asked to do a project for Pelco by Schneider Electric, a company that develops and manufactures video security systems. The management students on the team were Susanna Figueroa, Roberto Rios-Rios, Bryan Eo-Yi Kuo and Amandeep Kaur Anandpuri.

They came up with a cooling system for a security camera enclosure.

"There was nothing on the market that uses an active cooling system," Gore said. An active cooling system allows the camera to be cooled down immediately or go dormant and turn off when it's not needed.

The young engineers also added reflective material on the exterior of the camera and its cooling system that had never been used before.

The camera can be used in high temperature environments such as Abu Dhabi or the Sahara, Katz said. If it needs to be used in low temperatures, he said, the current in the cooling system can be reversed to keep it operating.

His group also submitted a patent for its project.

The teams spent the entire spring semester working on their projects, facing some hiccups along the way.

Still, Gore said, it was a great learning experience.

"I would definitely do it again," he said. "It's a real-world thing, real-world problem, (you) work on them and deal with people."

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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