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In Good Company: Future Engineers, Computer Scientists Harness Potential of Industry Partners

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This high-tech prototype doesn’t bark or sit on command. “SED” — Seeing Eye Dog — is a four-wheeled robot created by a team of computer engineering students. This “service robot” is built with a cane-like handle and the latest technology.

“Our project was not made to replace a guide dog, but to create a robot that helps the visually impaired and blind travel on foot from one destination to another,” says Peter Fink, who developed the project with classmates Riad Maulana Soliven and Daniel Verdugo. “An internet-based, voice-controlled app on the user’s phone can remotely control the GPS-guided robot.”

In another corner of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, computer engineering majors David Luu, Kushal Jain and Riken Parekh have designed a novel project using high-tech circuitry to harvest energy from Wi-Fi sources to power wireless electronic devices. Mobile device users could, theoretically, charge a wireless device’s battery — a smartphone or laptop — by collecting energy from nearby Wi-Fi networks. Using antenna and circuitry attached to a battery, the students are able to “harvest” energy from Wi-Fi signals and transform it into electrical energy.

“The focus of our project is to scavenge excess energy given off by Wi-Fi routers. We’re addressing the current energy crisis from another direction,” Luu says. “While the world is more focused on new ways to produce energy, our research tackles the problem through Wi-Fi energy scavenging.”

These student research projects, under the direction of faculty adviser Kiran George, professor of computer engineering, were created through the college’s ECS Corporate Partners program, which brings students, faculty and industry together to develop new technologies and prepare students for the technical and engineer- ing workforce. The projects were made possible through the college’s internet of things (IoT) program. One of the college’s corporate partners, Cisco Systems Inc., supports the IoT program, with funding awarded through the Silicon Valley Com- munity Foundation, in collaboration with Cisco Corporate Social Responsibility.

Incubating Innovation

This collaborative effort with local industry began in fall 2017, with 20 student projects sponsored by 11 corporate partners. Partnerships expanded this past academic year to 36 student projects supported by 17 corporations, such as Edwards Lifesciences, Unisys, Mercury Defense Systems and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

The long-term vision for the program is to have every senior capstone project sponsored by industry, says Susamma “Susan” Barua, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“The Corporate Partners program provides a structured framework and allows the college to reach out to industries year-round and arrange for supported undergraduate and graduate projects, including senior capstone projects,” explains Barua. “These projects represent real-world engineering and computing problems that teams of students can solve.”

A project’s concept, scope and length are discussed to provide a unique learning opportunity for the students while addressing the company’s challenge or need. The projects typically last through the academic year, with faculty members guiding students to ensure positive outcomes and maintain strong relationships with industry, George notes.

Corporate partners support the program not only because it provides a way to give students an immersive, applied learning experience but it also establishes a recruitment pipeline of diverse and talented individuals who offer fresh perspectives to challenges facing the industry, Barua points out. Partners also mentor and share industry experience, can serve in advisory roles and benefit from increased visibility within the campus community.

“There are several advantages for students who work on these corporate- supported projects,” George says. “They appreciate the opportunity to relate the theoretical concepts they learn as part of their coursework and apply it to real-world applications.”

While collaborating on a project, students learn teamwork, problem-solving, and communication and leadership skills — attributes employers are looking for in their hires, Barua adds.

Additionally, students working on industry-sponsored projects often have opportunities to secure internships and even full-time employment at the partner corporations because of their direct contacts with the company and industry mentor.

Skills for the Future

Education is part of Cisco’s mission to help solve society’s toughest problems, says
Tae Yoo, Cisco’s senior vice president of corporate affairs/corporate social responsibility. “As technology transforms the way we live and work, Cisco believes educational institutions and organizations focused on emerging entrepreneurs can be a powerful force for change and local economic development,” Yoo points out. “Public universities, such as Cal State Fullerton, not only have the capacity to meet industry demand for a digitally skilled workforce in Orange County, but also play a leading role in shaping entirely new ideas and industries to fuel the local economy and create jobs in the future.”

Alumnus and scientist Greg Wright, senior director of research and development at Edwards Lifesciences, also believes that students who work on industry projects are more prepared for the workforce.

“These projects teach students how to design and qualify equipment, innovate to improve manufacturing, and create drawing and design features on new machines. All of these skills could be applied to many different careers in the engineering field,” says Wright, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 2000 and a master’s degree in biology in 2008 from Cal State Fullerton.

Edwards Lifesciences, an Irvine-based medical device company with 12,000 employees worldwide, specializes in structural heart disease and critical care monitoring. It has supported more than 20 students in five projects over the last two years.

“Edwards Lifesciences gets the opportunity to assess and mentor the next generation of engineering leaders,” Wright says. “They work with our teams to develop products that help patients worldwide, as well as launch products that drive company growth.”

Some of these student projects range from developing tissue and valve testing equipment to designing next-generation tissue technologies and manufacturing equipment that could have a big impact on reducing manufacturing costs.

“Students get the chance to gain experience designing studies, working with experienced engineering leaders, innovating and getting a feel for how the medical device industry operates,” Wright adds. “This gives them the opportunity to see if this industry is the right fit for their careers.”

Luu, a junior on track to graduate in spring 2021, agrees that being engaged in an industry-supported project will give him a competitive edge in landing his first job after graduation: “This Wi-Fi project tested our ability to look outside the box to solve unforeseen issues, and the experience will help us when we finally join the workforce.”

Soliven, who worked on the service robot, adds that one of the most valuable skills he learned is how to work in a team environment — a skill needed to be successful in his future technical career. “I’ve also learned time management, how to communicate my ideas, and find solutions to make certain components function properly,” he says.

For industry, being a corporate partner is not only about playing a leading role to shape a skilled workforce, but paving the way for students’ future careers.

“I received a great education at Cal State Fullerton and want to give back to the university. I believe giving back to the community is a big part of what defines us as leaders,” Wright says. “I also want to encourage all students to be proactive with their careers because the world and job industry is getting tougher and more competitive.”