EPICS engineers help communities local and global
Above: The Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) Elite Pitch Competition in Spring 2020 featured winning teams of undergraduate students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University who are solving community challenges related to the environment, aging, public health and clean water access. In collaboration with Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton, EPICS teams learned how they can expand their impactful work with community partners by bringing their engineering solutions to other consumers and organizations within the broader marketplace. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU
When communities and engineers work together, everyone benefits. That’s the purpose behind the Engineering Projects in Community Service program, better known as EPICS, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.
The program has grown rapidly in the past year — from around 180 students in Spring 2019 to approximately 325 students participating a year later — to help communities near and far, concentrated and widespread.
The top teams in the 2019-2020 cohort include solutions to challenges related to the environment, aging, public health and clean water access.
Students apply engineering skills to give back to society
Throughout the year-long program, student teams work directly with community partners who pose a problem that could be solved through engineering.
“Students get the opportunity to make something that will actually be used to solve a problem people face in some aspect of their lives,” says Jared Schoepf, a lecturer and the director of operations for the EPICS program.
Across two semesters, students develop a small-scale prototype and build upon it until they ultimately deliver a solution to their community partner. During both semesters, EPICS teams undergo design reviews during which a panel of judges gives technical feedback.
In previous years, the design review scores qualified the top EPICS teams to participate in the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition for additional funding to build their prototype and demonstrate to other students what it takes to make a successful community solution through engineering.
Now, a new partnership has enabled teams to apply to the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition for additional opportunities and expand the reach of their projects.
New partnership brings wider societal impact
The EPICS program formed a new partnership this year with Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton, an initiative that helps ASU students, faculty and staff develop their ideas and startup ventures through a variety of programs and funding opportunities.
Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton has added a new funding dimension for community-focused engineering projects by offering a funding track designed especially for ventures addressing social needs.
“Now there’s an opportunity for students to use the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition to prepare them to compete for that social venture funding track,” Schoepf says.
As part of this change, any EPICS team can now apply to win up to $1,500 in the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition, which would then prepare them to apply for Venture Devils, an ASU-wide entrepreneurship program that helps support ASU-affiliated startup founders with mentorship and funding. Venture Devils Demo Day, held twice per year, provides EPICS teams a chance to compete for a broad array of grant funding, ranging between $1,000 and $100,000 in non-dilutive capital.
“EPICS has always been a little entrepreneurial because teams work directly with their partner or customer to create a solution or product that addresses their needs and will actually be put to use,” Schoepf says. “EPICS encourages students to think about solving a problem for one person or community, but they’re unlikely to be the only one who faces the problem and could use the student’s solution. This opportunity allows them to start thinking about who else is facing this problem and how can they scale their idea into a sustainable venture to help everyone.”
First place: Selleh Lake Restoration, LLC
Urban bodies of water like Selleh Lake in Tempe, Arizona, are facing microbiological disasters that can impact aquatic life, surrounding communities’ public health, regional agriculture and other aspects of local life.
However, a complex problem can have a simple solution — a concept of engineering that chemical engineering major Abigail Pezelj and her EPICS team co-founders, Josee Chadwick, Dillon Labban and Nicole Sluder, used as inspiration.
Pezelj and her team are creating a filtration system that targets cyanobacteria, green algae and coliform bacteria, all of which are common freshwater invaders known to cause problems for both aquatic ecosystems and human life. By selectively filtering out these invasive species, freshwater ecosystems will be able to sustain aquatic life and surrounding communities will be revitalized.
“We took an existing concept, rapid-sand filtration, and optimized it for our needs,” Pezelj says. “Not only have we scaled down the process, but we have also engineered a unique and effective blend of packed bedding and fit it into a compact and sleek design.”
Pezelj has participated in the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition before with the Selleh Lake Restoration team, and this year she says she felt much more confident going into the competition.
“We took our reviews from the previous semester in stride and fixed every critique, aiming to come out on top and prove ourselves as both serious engineers and businessmen and women,” Pezelj says.
As the first-place team, Selleh Lake Restoration earned $1,500 to continue research and development and take their product to market.
Schoepf was particularly impressed by the amount of effort Pezelj and her team put into their venture.
“The team was not satisfied with simply modifying existing methods on the market and instead focused on developing an entirely new system through rapid prototyping and testing,” Schoepf says.
Input from Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton, as well as expert Venture Mentors within the Venture Devils program, have helped the Selleh Lake Restoration team expand their networking, finances and feedback so the project can help more urban lakes and aquatic ecosystems around the world.
“We are expanding our project far past our community partner by marketing our design for global use, hoping to maximize our clientele and the impact Selleh Lake Restoration may have,” Pezelj says. “Entrepreneurship + Innovation has granted us the ability to explore our curiosity, conduct high-quality research and validate our existing design.”
Second place: Memory Glass
Alzheimer’s disease currently affects more than 5 million people in the United States. A way to help people affected by the disease came from mechanical engineering major Andrew Deros’ experience in a Devils Invent weekend hackathon event where students were tasked with developing technology to help the world’s elderly population become more independent.
“My co-founders and I decided on a design that would assist people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with remembering their loved ones through the use of smart glass technology,” Deros says.
Memory Glass is an attachment to glasses that uses facial recognition technology to help a user identify people’s names and relationships in real-time and avoid the need to ask mid-conversation.
“Many teams have ideas, some build a prototype, and few, like Memory Glass, build, test and iterate as quickly as possible to develop a solution that truly masters the users experience,” Schoepf says.
The chance to pitch the project allowed Deros and his partner, chemical engineering major Alex Hollar, to practice the marketing side of developing a product. As second-place winners, the team earned $1,000 to continue prototyping their product.
Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton helped Deros and Hollar develop a go-to-market strategy and take the next steps for their business venture.
“We have also begun to consider expanding our market to include business people, educators, politicians and others who could benefit from Memory Glass technology,” Deros says.
They plan to continue taking the project through the early development stages, user testing, design iteration and bring the product to market.
Third place: Navajo Mountain Bike Initiative
Public health is a widespread issue, and incorporating a fun activity to promote exercise and ecotourism in the Shonto community of the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona has been part of a multi-year EPICS project.
Civil engineering major Alexander Owen and his team are building a pump track — a looped trail with hills that bikers can use to gain momentum.
“When our team visited the Navajo Nation, we discovered that the geography made the area a great candidate for mountain biking, a popular sport that is eco-friendly,” Owen says. “Jonathan Nez, the current president of the Navajo Nation, Felix Fuller, the Shonto Chapter president, and fitness and health advocates within the nation supported this idea, and we began our work in Shonto a few years ago.”
The team has already built a track at a Shonto elementary school as well as mountain biking trails designed to draw in tourists. They’re also expanding to Tuba City and Kayenta, purchasing bikes and other mountain biking essentials to donate to elementary school children.
“We hope to have our project impact countless more people in the Navajo Nation,” Owen says.
Schoepf commended the Navajo Mountain Bike Initiative team for their persistent, hands-on approach over multiple years to help the community continue to benefit from their initial idea.
“The team did not simply want to build a mountain bike track, instead the team wanted to invoke longtime change through training the community on how to maintain and sustain the mountain bike track to ensure it is used for years to come,” Schoepf says.
The $500 earned as part of their third-place win will help the team continue to develop solutions in the Navajo Nation with specific emphasis on Tuba City next year.
Owen has worked on the Navajo Mountain Bike Initiative project since his first year, and plans to continue for as long as he can to expand the project’s reach in the region.
Fourth place: 33 Buckets EZ Chlorine
Biomedical engineering major Lucianne Morin and mechanical engineering major Benjamin Voller-Brown led a pair of teams to help address an issue that a community is facing nearly 4,000 miles away in Peru.
The team traveled to the country in 2018 to work with the nonprofit 33 Buckets (which started as an EPICS project in 2010) on an installation trip. 33 Buckets helps enable access to clean water by developing “self-sustaining community water franchises” in the communities it serves. One of the founders of 33 Buckets, Mark Huerta, is now a lecturer at ASU teaching EPICS courses.
“Some students noticed that 33 Buckets had no current solutions for treating E. coli in infected water,” Morin says. “Not only that, but JASS, the water board in Occupata, Peru, had actually stopped water treatment because it was so inaccurate and time-consuming. We wanted to make a device that would be far more accurate, and also need a human operator only once every few weeks rather than taking hours every day.”
Morin’s team developed a chlorine sensor for a water purification system that helps remove contaminants like E. coli from drinking water sources.
The experience of working with Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton has helped Morin and her team pivot to a wider market by developing a similar product that can be used in commercial and private pools.
Chlorine disinfection is the most common method to treat bacteria-contaminated water sources, but it requires a precise dose to be effective. Voller-Brown and his team worked on an autonomous residual chlorine sensor to detect chlorine levels for drinking water in rural Peru.
However, improper chlorine levels happen outside of water purification, including in pools and industrial processes. Voller-Brown and his teams’ technology can provide an alternative to other methods of testing that can be labor intensive, costly and often inaccessible.
“These teams’ ability to help 33 Buckets continue to innovate water treatment methods and address this important issue is a commendable achievement,” Schoepf says.
Each team earned $300 to continue developing their water treatment technologies.
Because of closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Morin says they’re currently unable to take devices to Peru for community feedback, and instead are focusing on the education aspects such as instructional aides and help guides.
Continuing funding through Venture Devils
All teams that placed in the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition are planning to compete for more funding through Venture Devils and the social venture track provided by the Entrepreneurship + Innovation @ Fulton partnership.
Pezelj and her team are taking the next steps to compete in Demo Day to pitch for further funding for the Selleh Lake Restoration project’s technology development.
Deros and Memory Glass have been part of Venture Devils since January 2020, and it’s been a great help in developing their product.
“Venture Devils has provided many great opportunities for funding, patenting, networking and other business strategies needed to take this product to market in the future,” Deros says.
Owen sees a lot of opportunity for the Navajo Mountain Bike Initiative to take off in the next few years and Venture Devils provides the opportunity to expand the scope of the project.
“We wanted to grow our idea and project, so we applied to Venture Devils knowing that we would receive mentorship and the funds necessary to continue expanding our project,” Owen says.
The 33 Buckets chlorine sensor and injector project teams are combining efforts to pursue funding through Venture Devils.
“Our Venture Mentor has been a huge help in making sure we pitch our product in the most concise and effective way possible,” Morin says.