Engineering Students Encounter Real-World Challenges in Pilot EPICS Program

Founded at Purdue University in 1995, the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program made its way to San José State University last fall. In this pilot, undergraduate students design, build, and deploy systems that help solve engineering-based problems in educational organizations, and more importantly, within the local community.

The EPICS program reaches out to community partners to build a multi-year partnership in areas such as human services, access and abilities, education and outreach, and the environment. Students involved in this program get the chance to gain long-term experience in defining, designing, building, testing, deployment, and support. In addition to this hands-on experience, students of the EPICS program can exercise their communication skills through involvement in multidisciplinary teams, leadership, and project management.

Check out these three current student projects:

Hygiene for the Homeless

It’s not an unfamiliar sight: the giant shipping container attached to the end of a big rig, sitting outside of a store, or in the Port of Oakland. Something so common is now even more useful than ever before--it will become a hygiene station for the homeless.

Hygiene for the Homeless was inspired by other mobile shower projects such as Santa Clara County’s Dignity on Wheels and San Francisco’s Lava Mae. The Hygiene for the Homeless team has dedicated countless hours of their time in order to make this project come true. With help from SJSU and Steve Guerriero, owner of Tailored Property Management, the team has been able to put together their mobile facility.

Through Herman Garcia, a connection of Guerriero’s, the team has been working with the Gilroy Compassion Center to build their mobile facility. With his shop on the outskirts of Gilroy, Guerriero kindly offered not only a space for these students to work on their mobile wash unit, but also offered the expertise of one of his best fabricators. Jorge Ruiz has been welding and fabricating since he was 7 years old in Mexico with his father. Ruiz loves the "challenge of big things" and has been hard at work helping the students weld the axles and trailer hitch to the shipping container that will be the mobile wash unit.

Once completed, the unit will be hauled to the Gilroy Compassion Center to act as a mobile shower and laundry facility. In addition, Sunpower, a local business, donated solar panels to help complete this project. Besides solar panels, the team is also working with a start-up that manufactures showerheads using green principles of drought-endurance to further be eco-conscious.

Professor Keith Perry (left) stands with students and the community volunteers
 This project has taught the team many lessons about finding reasons, making a business case, and managing the physics of engineering. “It took us a long time to come up with the idea and solidify as a team,” says Raymond Baldovino (ME, ‘15), project manager and nonprofit liaison. “Then we all learned about creating a Go Fund Me campaign.” The project is set to be completed in May.

Study Buddy
For a student, using search engines like Google or the library database can be an extremely overwhelming task. With so much information on the internet, it can be difficult to figure out what is true and what is false. Study Buddy is out to fix just that.

The Study Buddy team is getting a lot of help from IBM. Study Buddy is a software program that will let first and second-year computer science students text questions to IBM’s Supercomputer, Watson, and receive answers.

“I am so excited about this project,” said Joey Richardson (SE, ‘16). “We are creating a completely new technology: we are training Watson to learn computer science so it can answer the questions. That means we have to supply all the information to Watson, as well as derive the questions that first and second- year students are likely to ask. We manipulate our knowledge so Watson can help anyone to study successfully.”

“Here’s the best thing,” he added. “It’s not an app. If you have a cell phone, if you can text, you can participate.

Richardson and teammates Matthew Siamu (SE, '16) and Ross Wilkenson (SE, '16) plow through more than a thousand lines of code during Quality Testing.

So you don’t need a smartphone.” The implications are profound: rather than a first-world, smartphone project, this program could help students wherever there are cell phones and cell phone reception.

The introductory screen says, "Welcome to Study Buddy. What would you like to learn about Computer Science?"

While Richardson and his team intend to change the world, the EPICS class is changing him.

“I’ve found more purpose, more motivation to study and do my work,” said Richardson. “I’m driven to have this succeed and see it be used, and have it affect educational systems. I want education to be more accessible, more informal.”

The team hopes the project will launch in May. From there, opportunities for analytics and enhancements will be passed on to the next generation of EPICs students.
As for Joey, “I’m hoping to go to IBM and continue working with Watson. With Watson, I can work in any field.”

Electric Vehicle Charger
Ten students from across the college’s departments are collaborating on this project. “Imagine a Roomba that lives in your garage and has a tail,” suggests David Chiu (CMPE, ‘16), the industry liaison. “When your electric vehicle comes home, the charger connects and tells the Roomba the state of charge. If it needs more power, the device lines up the right magnetic attachments for that to happen. We’re still coming up with its name, but it’s sort of inductive, wireless, and autonomous.”

Mechanical Engineering Professor Fred Barez is the real-world customer. “We’ve been learning all about restrictions,” says Daniel Khawaja (CMPE, ‘16), the project manager, facilitator, and fundraiser. “We don’t get to design whatever we want -- it’s what he wants. It would be much easier to design a solution for a “fun” problem. But it’s exciting, too. We’ve been able to get critiques and ideas and help from industry professionals.”

This team deals with the further complication of multidisciplinary membership: a large team trying to discuss the project with many perspectives and sometimes differing vocabularies. “I’ve historically been more of a work-alone guy,” says Moises Negrete (CMPE, ‘16), “so the learning curve of working with a large group has sometimes been difficult. But now I feel more ready for whatever career is ahead.”

The EPICS Program has allowed these students to learn valuable lessons and gain a kind of hands-on experience that they would not have been able to receive in a traditional classroom setting. Thanks to Dr. Jinny Rhee, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering, for piloting the program; Professor Keith Perry for teaching the course and providing his deep industry experience; and to California State University STEM specialist, Romalyn Mirador, for working to implement, facilitate, and support all of the student-run projects.