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BME Alliance Holds Student Design Challenge


More than 500 undergrads participate in project as part of
the Virtual Summer Internship

If you want to encourage compliance with mask wearing on university campuses to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, who better to offer pioneering solutions than the students themselves? In August, 125 teams of engineering students shared short video pitches of solutions they created during a student design challenge developed by the Biomedical Engineering Alliance between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic as part of its 2020 Virtual Summer Internship.

Approximately 500 engineering undergrads from top universities around the world participated in the 10-week Virtual Summer Internship, which culminated in a small group-based design challenge to develop, design and test a solution to address the need for enhanced use of personal protective equipment (PPE) – particularly on college campuses – to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted on YouTube, the video pitches were viewed nearly 60,000 times during a two-week span in August. The winning design, selected because it received the most “likes,” was created by students from Brazil, Peru and the United States. Jake Thomas, Astrid Puma Alvites, Giulia Herszage Rocha and Sophia Hall designed the J.A.G.S. Unforgettable Mask made from two layers of 100% cotton material with a pocket in the middle for a filter. The team aimed to tackle two main problems with mask wearing – comfort and convenience – with its design. The triangular shape at the top and bottom lifts the mask off the mouth, while providing a tight seal around the chin and bridge of the nose.



Fostering Curiosity and Creativity

“The mask-oriented project is both personal and topical for students,” says Matthew Williams, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University who spearheaded the design challenge. “I was rather impressed by the thinking, overall curiosity and creativity expressed by the students.” To help

students work through the design process, he led weekly one-hour live seminars on all facets of engineering design, from brainstorming and assessing user needs to creating a business model and testing prototypes.

Williams also counseled many of the teams, each of which included three to five students, as they worked on solutions. These included physical masks, as well as innovations such as a rapid mask sterilizing system and interactive, web-based training courses to help students understand the role that masks play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and what they can do to facilitate mask wearing on campus.

Participants in the Virtual Summer Internship were energized by working on the summer-long design challenge. “It was very exciting to work on a project that has a direct application to the current crisis in our world, where we are able to see the potential benefits and positive outcomes our product could provide,” says Alexis Porco, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Virginia.


Filling a Gap During a Disrupted Summer

The design challenge was just one component of the Virtual Summer Internship. The program also featured live one-hour online sessions led several times a week by professors, researchers, professional staff, entrepreneurs and others on a host of topics related to biomedical engineering careers, research and technology.

Faculty from the Biomedical Engineering Alliance conceived of the program in late spring when it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to derail summer plans for most university students. “We were getting contacted regularly by BME students who had lost their summer internships and were looking for some way to replace them,” says Steve Fening, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Case-Coulter Translational Research Partnership. “We sought to provide a non-traditional academic experience for students – not exactly like an internship in a company, but different than a typical classroom.”

Fening spearheaded the Virtual Summer Internship alongside Robin Crotty, department manager and supervisor of BME education in the Biomedical Engineering Department of Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute. “The bread and butter of the BME Alliance are students. They are the tie that binds us,” says Crotty. “We knew these students had great summer opportunities lined up that, through no fault of their own, weren’t happening anymore. To help these students achieve something this summer was so important to us.”


Opening the Minds of Future Engineers

One of those students was Kelly Moton, a biomedical engineering major at Case Western Reserve whose internship in orthotics and prosthetics at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was canceled. She served as coordinator for the Virtual Summer Internship, organizing speakers, introducing online sessions and interacting with students. “I learned a lot about what really goes into running a program like this,” says Moton. “It definitely taught me better communication skills, with both faculty and students around my age.”

Moton adds that the 35 online presentations “were so helpful for any student.” One well-received session was presented by Bolu Ajiboye, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Ajiboye shared his work as an investigator with the Cleveland FES Center on implantable technology that restores limb movement to paralyzed patients, which was featured in a documentary entitled I AM HUMAN now streaming on several venues.

“I was really blown away by the technology shown in that documentary and the possibilities for implantable devices in the brain,” says Abigail Halsdorfer, an undergraduate mechanical engineering major at Case Western Reserve University who joined the live chat. “I found the ethical questions regarding these devices very significant, and I think it is important for me to remember the ethical responsibility I have going forward with whatever I ‘engineer.’”

It’s too soon to tell what impact, if any, the design challenge solutions will have on the campuses of participants in the 2020 Virtual Summer Internship. However, it’s clear that the program – likely a one-off event to fill a void in these unprecedented times – made a significant impression on students who joined in.

“The faculty at Case Western Reserve were so helpful and had a genuine excitement for the program,” says Porco. “They offered great advice in a time when students needed it most. We are truly grateful!”