Six weeks into Professor Max Zhang’s Internet of Things (IoT) course, he holds a graduation ceremony, complete with music, certificates and photos because, after a crash course on how to build, code and extract data from sensors, students are ready for the next goal of the courses: helping the community.
The course asks students to understand how to use IoT to understand society, so the work they do has a social impact, said Zhang, an Irving Porter Church professor at Cornell Engineerings Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble Faculty Director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Engineering curricula usually focus on achievements, your grades depend on achievements and we don’t pay attention to relationships, how to build mutual relationship, how to build trust. The course asks students to do both.
The class is part of a larger project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to design and implement a statewide IoT network in New York City, using a form of low-frequency radio to provide service in areas without cellular or broadband access , helping to bridge the digital divide. Zhang’s course, initially funded by Cornells David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, gives students a hands-on role.
Zhang also received support from Cornell Engineerings Shen Fund for Social Impact to create a student project team, EngagedIoT, to support community engagement efforts.
One of the six course teams, in collaboration with Cayuga Health System partners, is developing a device that monitors blood pressure and sends data directly to health care providers in areas without Internet access, which Cayuga Health estimates could help 4,000 people. Another group has built a sensor that measures the location and depth of potholes to help the Ithaca Department of Public Works. A third group of students is bringing IoT technology to Geneva High School classrooms in an effort to lower the barriers to STEM careers.
Other projects include the development of sensors to monitor weather and soil conditions at a Geneva winery, a food cabinet that can alert Mutual Aid Tompkins when supplies are needed, and a prototype that monitors road conditions for the highway department of the Tompkins County.
IoT is a great way to step back and see how engineering can really influence positive change in the world, said Sruti Yanamandra, 22, a master’s student in mechanical engineering. She takes you back to why you wanted to be an engineer in the first place. This class helped me experience that.
Yanamandra wants to bring that sense of excitement and impact to a younger generation at Geneva High School, to help solve a problem she’s seen in her own life: She’s seen many of her peers, especially her female peers, walk away from the majors or from careers in STEM.
Whether it’s a lack of confidence or resources, or preconceptions that you have to be at a certain level or reach a certain level, something is holding people back, Yanamandra said.
When Yanamandras’ group met with high school administrators and teachers in Geneva, they echoed her concerns: They fought to help students overcome real or perceived barriers to STEM.
IoT, the group thought, could be the perfect gateway.
You can use a temperature sensor, a humidity sensor, a soil sensor, and then you can analyze the data, create graphs; it is all encompassing, said Yanamandra. But you don’t need a ton of prior knowledge to start using it.
After distributing a survey to students, Yanamandra and his team developed a pilot lesson for a high school student environmental group, the Green Club. The group of students learned about two types of temperature sensors and discussed possible applications for projects inside and outside the Green Club, including using the sensors to create a garden.
All of the sensors we use are critical to the kinds of projects these guys love to work on, said Ini Adeleye, 23, a mechanical engineering specialist at Cornell Engineering. So, one of the interesting things is that we’re not just taking an arbitrary aspect of STEM, but something that’s directly applicable to the stuff they’re already passionate about.
They organized it to give our students a voice, said Kirsten Abbott, a chemistry teacher at the Geneva high school. That’s what education is about finding out where people are and where they need to be. Now, in a matter of weeks, they’re also following up and making sure the technology is in the hands of the students. It’s very impactful.
In other projects, the accessibility of IoT has enabled direct application with students developing or improving devices and quickly seeing the results. Jason Manning, a biomedical engineering doctoral student, participated in the new this semester’s pothole monitoring project and said it was refreshing to be able to build a device and immediately deploy it.
You’ll almost never pick up a medical device from a biomedical engineering class and be able to do something applied with it because of all the regulations, Manning said. It was definitely different to implement this quite straightforwardly and get design feedback so quickly from the Department of Public Works.
The Mannings group has developed a prototype that sits in a vehicle and measures acceleration and position, which allows it to detect when and where the car hits a pothole. When they tested it on the roads of Ithaca, they were able to create a map of potholes, classified by severity. While still in their early stages, these devices could be deployed in municipal vehicles—garbage or recycling trucks or snowplows—that plow through every street in the city to provide the city with a detailed map without additional monitoring efforts.
For many students, the IoT course was their first opportunity to work with community partners, and many have noted that the ongoing nature of the projects, from semester to semester, allows for real long-term impact.
It’s a very holistic class in the sense that you’re getting the technicalities and a great overview of the system, said Merrill Shen, a computer science student who has worked on blood pressure monitors. But I think what’s a lot more nuanced is you have this soft side, where you engage with the community and previous alumni who have worked there, making sure you’re asking the right questions.
Working with real problems in the community also forced the students to be adaptable. Shens’ group pivoted from previous teams’ work on developing a glucose monitor when their partners at Cayuga Health said a blood pressure monitor would be more useful.
It was a great opportunity to understand what it’s like to work as a team, with real stakeholders, with community members who are really going to benefit, Shen said.
The students said that Zhang’s passion for impact and community engagement provides an inspiring role model.
It taught us that success doesn’t mean things always go as planned, said Nathaniel Garcia, 23, a mechanical engineering specialist at Cornell Engineering and a member of the STEM awareness team. If we’ve built a strong relationship, that’s one way to measure success.
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