Undergraduate Engineering Researchers to Showcase Projects at UMass Amherst on Aug. 3

July 23, 2007


AMHERST, Mass. – Forty undergraduate researchers will present their summer projects on Friday, Aug. 3, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Engineering Student Center in Marcus Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Carried out by participants in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, the projects include a wide range of useful and ingenious concepts, as developed by faculty members to meet key human needs. Examples include:

• Deployment of a computer navigation system for the blind in a local supermarket

• A study on how to turn plants into sustainable fuel

• An effort to improve the identification of danger zones for automobile crashes in the Commonwealth

• Research to help protect geriatric patients from potentially fatal falls

How clever are these concepts? Take the EyeHelp electronic system, which will offer a means for the 11 million visually impaired people in the United States to go shopping unassisted in grocery stores. The Multimedia Networks Lab in the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department has developed two preliminary prototypes focused on navigation assistance for the blind and visually impaired. One of these prototypes, called EyeHelp, uses RFID tags strategically located around a supermarket so that visually impaired users, equipped with EyeHelp homing devices, can orient themselves and find any product in the store. This summer ECE student Sean Morrell is deploying a full-scale EyeHelp system for first-hand testing in one of the local Big Y supermarkets.

Another promising project, being carried out by chemical engineering student Sabra Hanspal, studied the production of “bio-fuels” through aqueous-phase processing.

Many engineers believe that plant biomass is the most feasible solution to the energy crisis because it’s the only sustainable source of organic carbon and liquid fuels. But, in order to replace petroleum fuels for transportation, a liquid bio-fuel must be developed from biomass that doesn’t require much vehicle modification.

“The REU program provides an in-depth experience working with faculty and other students on the edge of knowledge that often provides a defining moment for students,” says Michael F. Malone, the dean at the College of Engineering.

The summer researchers are supported by a variety of funding sources that include the National Science Foundation, with awards made to the College of Engineering, the new Institute for Cellular Engineering, and the Center for Collaborative, Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere. Other sources are the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing, the IGERT program in Nanotechnology Innovation, and a joint College of Engineering/School of Nursing program funded by an alumnus and alumna from each college and school. Further support comes from alumnus James M. Smith ’67, Commonwealth College, the UMass Amherst Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and the Dean’s Fund for Undergraduate Research in Engineering, established in honor of Joseph I. and Barbara H. Goldstein.

The cost of funding an undergraduate researcher for the summer is about $7,500, and every student is closely monitored and advised by a faculty member.