Innovate to Grow is a twice-yearly celebration of student ingenuity hosted by the School of Engineering (SoE). In a way, it's a science fair for college students to help solve problems that businesses and nonprofit organizations face, and potentially gain partnerships to see their projects utilized in real-world applications.
In past years, Innovate to Grow was the purview of engineering seniors, demonstrating their capstone projects before graduation. This fall's event, however, provided the opportunity for first-year students - and for students who aren't engineering majors - to take part. "We wanted to be more affirming to a broader array of students," said Professor Anita Bhappu.
"They don't have to know engineering, but they can help solve grand challenges using design thinking and teamwork that is common in engineering. We wanted to start teaching freshmen those skills, so we rolled out a new SPARK 10: Inclusive Innovation course," Bhappu said.
Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation where an issue is tackled through a process that starts with brainstorming and goes through iteration to find the best solution.
Fifteen sections of the SPARK 10: Inclusive Innovation course were offered in fall by the Center for Advancing Diversity in Engineering (CADE), which was recently launched using the MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett gift funds. Ten more sections are being offered in spring.
Instructors are UC Merced doctoral candidates who are funded as CADE Teaching Fellows and actively mentored on the SPARK 10: Inclusive Innovation course pedagogy. When one doctoral student had to pull out, former SoE Dean Mark Matsumoto stepped in, Bhappu said, and taught two of the sections.
While the seniors create a physical project, the first-year teams present posters of a solution concept. Many of the first-year posters tackled problems such as lack of access to clean water, electronic phishing and EBT card skimming. "Hopefully, four or five years from now these students will be working in senior capstone teams," Bhappu said.
The posters and projects were displayed in the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center. On the side where the senior capstone projects were being demonstrated, Milan Overholtzer described his team's efforts to help local business Agrecom Inc. get a handle on rodents.
Team R.A.T.S. (Ranch Applied Tracking System) came up with a way to use artificial intelligence (AI) to spot and identify rodents throughout a property.
"Counting them by hand is very hard," Overholtzer said. He and his team spent much of the semester, three to four months, working with cameras and technology to get the system to correctly identify and locate rodents.
"It actually works very well," he said. "I'm especially proud of the AI."
After a morning of demonstrating the projects, the seniors moved them into the judging sites. Teams of faculty and community members made up the judging panels, and then a reception was held where the winners were announced.
More information about Innovate to Grow is available on the program's website.