The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Tomorrow’s Electronic Wizards Today

On Friday, April 20, the 22nd annual Senior Design Project Day at the University of Massachusetts Amherst unveiled 20 creative, useful, and socially conscious electronic inventions produced by seniors from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE). The event was a high-tech floor show for the electronics of the future. This year’s inventions included devices that assist special needs students perform important everyday activities independently. Other inventions teach sign language electronically, monitor vital safety factors for firefighters, and make drivers aware of pedestrians and cyclists in the road.

To find out exactly what these inventions do, you can go to Senior Design Project Teams.

“The Senior Design Project is not only the culminating project in the ECE curriculum,” says T. Baird Soules, the department’s undergraduate program director, “but it is also where students broaden their skill base by making presentations, working in teams, and staying within their budgets.”

For example, two of the projects this year, named Minimal-Movement Interactive Entertainment Interface and Place N Paste, have been formulated with the help of a special education teacher from the West Springfield school department. “The projects have been designed to assist special needs students in the teacher's class perform activities such as tuning a radio and brushing their teeth,” explains ECE faculty course coordinator Russell Tessier. “The teacher and students are tentatively scheduled to visit campus and interact with the senior design students in May.”

Another project with a social conscience is called ASLLENGE, an electronic device that helps students learn and communicate with American Sign Language. The ASLLENGE system tracks basic upper body and finger motions. When a word is pronounced by a user, ASLLENGE automatically searches its database to find the corresponding motion in Sign Language. Then, if the user matches that word correctly in Sign Language, the word is displayed on the ASLLENGE monitor.

Another of these “culminating projects” is called SAVANT, for Simple Awareness of Vehicles and Assorted Night Traffic, which gives drivers another way to be aware of cyclists and pedestrians. Cars equipped with SAVANT can sense cyclists or pedestrians well before they are in line-of-sight, and no matter how bad visibility conditions are. How? The pedestrian or cyclist wears a small inexpensive device that transmits his or her location to a module in the automobile, which alerts the driver through a small display on the windshield.

One other protective device being developed is the SAFE-T, made up of sensors in a firefighter’s outfit to monitor vital life-or-death information such as temperature inside and outside the suit, heart rate, and oxygen tank levels. Using the output signals from these sensors, those data are transmitted via radio waves to a central command center, where they can be assessed and acted upon by a fire chief or some other safety officer.

The Senior Design Project provides a capstone experience for undergraduate students in the ECE department. Students work in teams of four during a year-long course to design and build systems of their own conception. Each team is advised by a faculty member in the department, and projects undergo several formal reviews. The learning goals for the senior design project include technical design, an understanding of realistic constraints, ethics, and much more.

Inventions such as these serve as capstone projects for seniors in ECE. “The design project is as close as we can get to duplicating what these students will be doing in their professional lives,” says ECE Department Head Christopher Hollot. (April 2012)