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Engineering, Computer Science Students Pitch Solutions to Address Social Justice Issues

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At Cal State Fullerton’s second annual Engineering Social Justice: A Design Challenge, three student teams took top honors for their projects that addressed such important topics as access to mental health support for low-income families, coordination of resources for health caretakers and campus safety for women.

In the fall semester, interested students attended a social justice design workshop, formed multi-disciplinary teams, paired with a faculty adviser, and chose a focus that addressed a singular social injustice through the application of engineering and computer science.

A newly added poster session opened the March 20 competition as students, faculty and community partners explored 14 projects. The top nine teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges.

The competition was supported by the Scott-Jewett Fund for Student Success and Innovation, and this year welcomed corporate sponsorship from Southern California Edison.

“It’s wonderful to have collaborative, co-curricular experiences like engineering social justice for our students,” said Susan Barua, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Their innovative ideas in the space of social impact really drive home how our students can take the technical skills honed in the CSUF classroom and apply them to make a tangible difference in the world.”

With the prize money, the top teams and their faculty advisers will further develop ideas into solutions. The winning teams are:

Catpanion by Cat Byte — first prize, $6,000

Project idea: Catpanion aims to provide mental health assistance for low-income and marginalized children during critical ages of mental development by offering a cost-effective portable device designed in collaboration with mental health professionals, which employs meditation and mindfulness techniques to strengthen mental well-being.

Community need: There are a limited number of resources and economic barriers that prevent low-income and marginalized communities from receiving the mental health services they need. A 2019 study showed that ethnically diverse and low-income children experience mental health episodes at a higher rate while receiving less services compared to all children.

Solution: Catpanion will be designed in collaboration with mental health professionals to provide the best and most effective techniques, such as mindfulness and meditation. This aid device will consist of a silicone mold in the shape of a cat and include a microcontroller and other peripherals, as well as sensors and haptic motors that will induce a cat-like purr, which aims to be calming and appealing for the user.

Next steps: Next steps include building out the team of qualified individuals to improve services, expanding aid to address other mental health challenges, creating other form factors based on different animals, and partnering with a nonprofit organization.

Team members: Bazil Alvarez, computer engineering and business administration-accounting and finance major; David Frias, computer engineering major

Faculty adviser: Ankita Mohapatra, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering

Quote: “Children from low-income and minoritized backgrounds often experience greater inaccessibility to mental health resources. The surge in demand for telehealth services during and following the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need for solutions that bridge technology with therapy solutions. In response to this need, introducing a device like Catpanion could serve as a vital step. This device is envisioned to be both cost-effective and easily accessible, which would not replace traditional therapy but serve as a complement.”

CAaRE (Caretaker Assistance and Resources Engine) by Team Care —second prize, $4,000

Project idea: While care for individuals with cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and mental and physical disorders is important, their caretakers are often overlooked. The purpose of this project is to help caretakers by developing an app that will provide them one centralized tool to improve their well-being and help them care for their loved ones.

Community need: In 2020, there were 53 million unpaid caretakers in the United States. This number is growing rapidly worldwide, with 647 million unpaid full-time caretakers as of 2022, according to the Wilson Center. These caretakers, frequently women of color or from low-income backgrounds, deal with immense responsibilities caring for their loved ones. This leads to significant stress, impacting their health and financial stability.

Solution: CAaRE is an innovative app designed to alleviate the pressures faced by caregivers. This includes appointment scheduling assistance, calendar syncing, prescription tracking, providing resources for mental health, connecting with therapists and engaging with other caretakers.

Next steps: The team intends to implement the CAaRE app. Then, the project will be further designed for building a physical device that incorporates some of the app’s functions for use in areas with limited or no internet connectivity. This device may be a small cost-effective hardware unit with a monitor screen.

Team members: Jonathan Escobedo, George Ruiz and Mason Cotterill, computer science majors

Faculty adviser: Mira Kim, assistant professor of computer science; Jaya Dofe, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering

Quote: “As a former caretaker to my late father, I know on some level the daily struggle many caretakers often have to deal with caring for a loved one and the toll it can have. The ultimate goal of CAaRE is to ease the burden these caretakers must deal with on a daily basis, and to help them better care for themselves and their loved ones by streamlining the tools they use on a daily basis, as well as provide them resources that they may need,” said Escobedo.

Wlk by Defending Hearts and Harmony (H₂A) — third prize, $2,000

Community need: There has been an uptick in globally institutionalized fear in women due to the rise in crimes related to stalking, kidnapping, harassment, assault and rape.

Solution: Wlk is an app connecting women on campus for safer walks together, eliminating the uncertainty of walking alone. Free for users, Wlk operates on a shift-based system, assigning users to walk with trained self-defense companions. Sustainability is found by partnering with campus safety service and implementing safety measures like code exchanges.

Next steps: The project will advance the development of the application by using existing designs. The team will focus on coding a progressive web app, given that they have familiarity with that language in order to grant a more timely release date.

Team members: Hafsa Farooqui, civil engineering major; Hiba Mughal and Dahlia Sukaik, computer science majors; Ayah Halabi, applied mathematics major

Faculty adviser: Sudarshan Kurwadkar, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Quote: “As women, we understand the trials and tribulations that so many of our community face, for tasks even as simple as walking to and from our cars. This project is important to us because no student, in any capacity, should feel unsafe on or around their college campus. If we can help eliminate this problem while also creating jobs for students, it is a win-win.”

Consolidated Research Assistance for Transfer Students by Transfer Assist — best poster, $500

Industry judges included Tom Bettens, retired senior architect and technical director for Raytheon; Stephanie Del Rosario, CSUF sustainability analyst; Paul Martin, senior project manager at Mark Thomas; Aaron Mendis, CSUF alumnus and distribution field engineer for Southern California Edison; and Mojgan Sami, CSUF assistant professor of public health.

CSUF faculty members Kristijan Kolozvari, Garrett Struckhoff and Paul Salvador Inventado organized the competition.

“It is amazing to see engineering and computer science students dive into the nuances of complicated issues like mental health services, public safety, and accessibility, and come up with creative solutions using their considerable problem-solving ability,” said Kolozvari. “It gives me hope for the future to see technology applied with empathy and social impact in mind.”

Alex Choperena