Engineering News Winter 2018

Lavish Enthusiasm for Frugal Innovation

With a mission “to engage students and faculty in technological and humanitarian projects through partnerships and programs,” Santa Clara University’s Frugal Innovation Hub (FIH) has become a leader in the field of humanitarian technology development, research, and implementation. Its administrators are highly sought-after speakers on the global stage, and student project leaders routinely publish their work in journals and present at local and international conferences.

Often students are drawn to the Hub after hearing about a friend’s project; others scan the website for interesting projects. Last year, computer engineering master’s students Anjali Kumar, Grism Patel, and Barsa Nayak took both those pathways and teamed up to create a website for Collaborate for Africa (C4A), an organization connecting San Francisco Bay Area project innovators with one another. FIH Director Silvia Figueira explained, “The organization is set up to share who is doing what in Africa, but they didn’t have a website. The grad students spent the summer building a site for C4A so their more than 300 members can share stories and learn from each other’s experiences or offer help.”

The team set to work, streamlining authentication processes to ease the moderator’s work and making the site responsive for mobile devices. When they presented their ideas to about 30 of the NGO’s members in San Francisco, they were moved by the response. “They treated us like we were doing a great favor for them. This inspired us to work harder and do more,” said Barsa. Anjali agreed. “We entered the project to learn, but the clients were so overwhelmed and excited, it made us feel like part of something big and important.” Aside from the warm feeling, the team walked away with great hands-on experience. “Professor Silvia chooses the latest technologies for us to use,” said Grism. “She chose MEAN Stack because that’s the hot new technology. Moving forward, we will have more opportunities since we’ve worked with that.” The site officially launched in February during a C4A meeting at the Frugal Innovation Hub.

Other recent FIH projects include a mobile app for an organization in Kenya that educates people on how to avoid human trafficking, and another team’s app will help a former San Quentin inmate improve the success of drug abuse recovery. Still another sorts cellphone data for an organization assisting refugees as they adjust to American life.

Over the past five years, FIH has facilitated more than 125 projects in areas ranging from sustainable construction to thermal energy solutions, frugal materials, mobile for social benefit, and global health. With so much experience and knowledge culled from the work of scores of students, faculty, and partners, a core frugal task is to centralize that information so others can tap into it.

Figueira said: “We get a lot of interest in senior design projects focused on renewable energy for Africa, especially solar panels, and our engineering students have worked on a number of projects dispersed across the globe for similar types of communities with similar sets of needs. Our grad students are building a list of requirements and specifications for seniors working on this type of project so they can be ahead of the game when they start out—what to look for in materials, how to deploy, an instruction manual template. Having this set of tools at the outset, our seniors can focus on design and deployment based on the specific local needs, utilizing the knowledge acquired by previous SCU solar projects. We’ve done so many, a list of our best practices and case studies will be very helpful.”

Recently the Hub has opened a new area of work in partnership with the School of Engineering’s Robotics Systems Laboratory—technologies to prevent and mitigate natural disasters. Five of this year’s senior design projects address such issues. “We’re getting to a really interesting point in the Frugal Innovation Hub where external partners are coming to us for help, and a lot of students want to be a part of what’s happening here,” Figueira added. “We’re growing like crazy. Our students want to work on these meaningful projects, and we want to generate world-class engineers to be leaders in developing solutions for humanity’s challenges. It’s a win-win situation!”

More: scu.edu/engineering/frugal

(Left to right) Grism Patel, Anjali Kumar, and Barsa Nayak take a break from their work in the Frugal Innovation Hub.  Photo: Heidi Williams