Creating Innovative Technology for the Real World

Teams of undergraduate students from colleges and universities in the Northeast participated in the inaugural Engineering Innovation for Society student design competition. The competition was sponsored by the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE), and the School of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Photo credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute/Kris Qua


Media Relations

February 20, 2018

Creating Innovative Technology for the Real World

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Hosts Inaugural Engineering Innovation for Society Undergraduate Student Competition Focused on Creating Devices and Systems for Individuals with Disabilities

Troy, N.Y. —  A hypertonic grip expander for individuals with cerebral palsy and stroke patients, a chair for students on the autism spectrum, and an independent lifting device for quadriplegic individuals are the designs created by teams of undergraduate students from colleges and universities in the Northeast during the inaugural Engineering Innovation for Society (EIS—pronounced “ice”) student design competition. The competition was sponsored by the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE), and the School of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

At Rensselaer, students already take on design challenges for industry, service organizations, or entrepreneurs. Working in multidisciplinary teams, and coached by a professor and project engineers with extensive industrial experience, Rensselaer students formulate the problem and conceptualize designs to make a positive difference in the world. They work to build prototypes and test their solutions in a fabrication lab with state-of-the-art machining equipment, 3-D printers, and other devices.

Now, with the launch of the annual EIS competition, undergraduate students from other institutions will have an opportunity to visit the Rensselaer campus to experience the engineering workplace of the 21st century—and explore how innovative technological solutions lead to a better and more sustainable world.

“The Engineering Innovation for Society student design competition is a tribute to Professor Burt Swersey who served as a lecturer in the Rensselaer School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering for more than 25 years, before he passed away in March 2015,” said Suvranu De, head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer. “Swersey was an innovation and entrepreneurship guru—a legendary teacher and mentor who lit the flame in many Rensselaer students to make a positive difference in the world. EIS is our way of teaching the next generation of innovators how to identify problems and seek creative solutions so that they can have a positive impact on people’s lives.”

This year’s inaugural competition included 31 students from colleges and universities in the Northeast, including Columbia, George Washington University, Parsons School of Design, MIT, Stevens Institute of Technology, United States Military Academy, University of Buffalo, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of New Hampshire, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Yale, and York College of Pennsylvania.  

Last month, from January 11 to 14, on the Rensselaer campus, students were assigned to teams and worked on various projects to dream up novel ideas and develop prototypes for individuals who have disabilities, provided by the Center for Disability Services (CDS) of Albany, N.Y. Additional projects included the development of a dental stability device, designing a Parkinson’s writing assistant, improving a feeding tube device, and a canopy to protect patients who use wheelchairs from the elements during transfer to vehicle.

“We have long been recognized as a leader in design, producing the very best engineers for the current workplace,” said John Tichytribology expert and professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer, who led the EIS organizing committee. “Now we’re expanding our influence, in keeping with The New Polytechnic, to motivate and engage students to address grand challenges, enabling cross-fertilization in new disciplines and with the very best collaborating institutions. Based on our reputation, the undergraduate students from some of the very best schools in the Northeast region came to Rensselaer. We learned from them, they learned from us; and we all made contributions to aid people with disabilities.”

Tichy noted that he hopes the EIS student design competition and some of its key concepts that are focused on projects driven to help society will spread in future years by reputation and word of mouth. “Using a rapid design paradigm that has been seen in hackathons and makeathons, our primary goal in creating EIS is to bring inventive students to the Rensselaer campus, to introduce them to all aspects of design and prototyping, while also creating a space for them use our facilities, and work with our faculty and staff in the School of Engineering, to develop engineering solutions to real-world practical problems.”

In addition to Tichy, the School of Engineering MANE faculty and staff involved in coordinating the event included Assistant Professor Jason E. Hicken; Professor of Practice Asish Ghosh; Sam Chiappone, director of manufacturing innovation for the School of Engineering, and staff from Rensselaer’s Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, and members of the MANE Student Advisory Council.

“The Center for Disability Services provides hope through innovation and services to people of all ages who have disabilities,” said Alan Krafchin, the center’s president and CEO. “We are honored to be the only community nonprofit to collaborate with these high-achieving college and university students as part of the EIS competition. Our medical and clinical professionals were able to explain and demonstrate real-world needs experienced, in some cases on a daily basis, by individuals with disabilities. Participants then sought solutions and created prototypes which may someday be available in the marketplace and could be helpful to thousands of people. These students truly are Engineering Innovation for Society.”

The Center for Disability Services, based in Albany, N.Y., has more than 80 locations throughout the Capital Region and Saratoga/Lake George region, which offer health, dental, outpatient therapy and medical specialty services, education, job training, residential, and transportation services. The center, which has been a community resource for 76 years, provides innovative programs and vital services, which are often not available elsewhere, to thousands of individuals with disabilities and families every year.

Student projects—which were mechanical in nature—were evaluated both on conceptual design and prototyping. Prizes awarded included $10,000 to the first-place team, $4,000 to the second-place team, and $2,000 to the third-place team.

Professor Swersey’s daughter, Sarah Swersey, and members of her family traveled from Massachusetts to Rensselaer to deliver the awards, which were dedicated in honor of her father, to the participating teams.

The team designs for the EIS 2018 competition are:

First Place: Students created a hand splint that can change size and shape. The device is beneficial to individuals who are hypertonic, as it can be difficult and painful to stretch their hand and wrist and position it appropriately. Team members included: Michael Eaton (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Richard Huizar (MIT), Travis Jones (York College of Pennsylvania), Andrew Reardon (Yale), and Avi Steinburg (Columbia).

Second Place: Students created the Autism Chair for students to accommodate increased sensory stimulation and vigorous movement. The goal was to propose an affordable design for a classroom setting that would be similar to existing chairs used in the classroom and not stand out. Team members included: Yonah Elorza (Columbia University), Sankee Maringanti (Stevens Institute of Technology), Konstantin Mitic (George Washington University), Noah Payeur (University of New Hampshire), and Gregory Zogby (United States Military Academy).

Third Place: Students worked to develop a convertible wheelchair bed to enable the transition of a quadriplegic individual from the bed to a chair without aid from another person. Team members included: Danielle Browning (University of Connecticut), Olivia Gustafson (University of Buffalo), Kalen Patrick Kahn (United States Military Academy), and Connie Zhang (Columbia University).

The Canopy team worked to create a system that could be usable by one person to protect a patient using a wheelchair from weather-related elements during transfer from a vehicle. Team members included: Aydin Akyol (Yale University), Bettina Arkhurst (MIT), Audrey Balaska (University of New Hampshire), Amanda Redhouse (York College of Pennsylvania), and Jacob Thompson (United States Military Academy).

The Parkinson’s Writing Assistant team worked to create a writing device or pen for individuals who have Parkinson’s. Team members included: Christopher Krause (MIT), Valeria Villanueva (Yale), Hannah White (United States Military Academy), and Mey Young Olivares Tay (Stevens Institute of Technology).

The Dental Chair team worked to develop a dental stability device to make the patient more comfortable during visits. According to the Center for Disability Services, there is a tool to assist with keeping a patient’s mouth open during procedures, but the individual’s head is held manually, which is inefficient and upsetting to patients. Team members included: David Cardoza (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Tyler Langbein (University of Buffalo), Minxuan Li (Parsons School of Design), and Mahdiar Edraki (University of Massachusetts-Amherst)

The Feeding Tube team worked on a prototype to improve the device to address problems with clogging, leaking, detaching, and cleanliness. Team members included: Kelly Ehrhart (Stevens Institute of Technology), Julia Lin (University of Pennsylvania), Eli Mattingly (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), and Brian Savidge (United States Military Academy).

“Engineering to help humanity is at the core of what we do at Rensselaer,” De said. “I believe in the innovative spirit of our undergraduate students, and competitions such as EIS are aimed at unleashing that spirit to improve the human condition. What we saw over the weekend is truly inspirational—teams of students from diverse backgrounds, working together to come up with game-changing solutions that may improve the quality of lives of people with disabilities. This is indeed the future of student-centric engineering education.”

The Engineering Innovation for Society student design competition exemplifies the vision of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer, the foundation of which is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration—working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions—to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as 6 National Medal of Technology winners, 5 National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to



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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit