UPEI engineers solve real-world problems with year-end design projects

The halls and workspaces of UPEI's School of Sustainable Design Engineering are alive with innovation as students work towards completing their final design projects for the year.

'You get the satisfaction of seeing people actually using what they designed,' says assistant professor

This team, which travelled to Pakistan, worked all semester and ended up using a natural solution with water hyacinths to help with waste water treatment. (John Robertson/CBC)

The halls and workspaces of UPEI's School of Sustainable Design Engineering are teeming with innovation as students work towards completing their final design projects for the year.

Student design clinics are underway in which community and industry organizations partner with the university to assign projects to the students that will give them real world experience.

"It is more than a classroom atmosphere satisfaction of passing a course. You get the satisfaction of seeing people actually using what they designed," said assistant professor Grant McSorley.

"Instead of just looking at the technical aspects, we asked them to look at the environmental sustainability, the financial analysis, reliability … how is this actually going to behave when it is in someone's hands and they are using it."

The third- and fourth-year students work in teams, with the fourth-years acting as project managers.

Companies pay a senior design clinic fee and for the materials used by the students to come up with the requested prototype, within specific parameters.

Here are just a few of the projects that the students worked on this year.

Zumer Fatima was one of the team leads working on waste water solutions for rural Pakistan. (John Robertson/CBC)

Waste water solutions for rural communities in Pakistan

One team travelled to rural Pakistan to see first-hand what their engineering project could help accomplish.

"There was a lack of adequate waste water management and treatment services," said Zumer Fatima, a fourth-year co-lead on the project.

"The raw waste water seeps back into the ground water as well and that is the same ground water that they are pumping back into their wells for drinking and other purposes."

Their solution came up naturally: using a plant that grows in Pakistan to help filter the water. One of their constraints was to design working models that would cost less than $200.

The team even travelled to Pakistan to see the conditions that they were working to remedy. (Supplied: Zach Denny)

Fatima moved to Canada from Pakistan to become an engineer. She said it was amazing to be part of a solution that would improve people's lives.

"Growing up, I always wanted to do something, change the current situation in Pakistan in whatever way I could," Fatima said. 

"So this would be a little part of it, a very small fraction of me contributing toward that change and I hope that I can continue to do so not just for Pakistan but also for Canada."

This team spent hours testing the virtual interior of Province House, adding in facts and interesting details. (John Robertson/CBC)

Virtual tour of Province House for Parks Canada

Another team went to Province House to bring visitors inside through virtual reality while it was still under construction.

People will be able to put on virtual glasses and explore the heritage building, all from a seated position.

The team also worked with animators from the University of Trinidad and Tobago to bring the virtual experience to life. (John Robertson/CBC)

The tours are designed to last between five and eight minutes — with facts and famous rooms spotted along the way.

A pair of animators contributed to the project from the University of Trinidad and Tobago.

The team spent countless hours exploring in the virtual space to bring the historic spot to life.

Some engineering teams worked in a virtual space to accomplish the goals set by the client, like this team that is creating a virtual reality tour of Province House. (John Robertson/CBC)

"I just get blown away every single time I see it and I just want other people to have that 'oh wow' moment when they go in," said Tristan Dawson, fourth-year engineering student and project lead.

The plan is to have the virtual tours available outside Province House in Charlottetown during the summer months.

The projects mimic real world work conditions with deadlines and client expectations, geared towards getting the students ready for work outside the classroom. (John Robertson/CBC)

Image sensor test bench for DRDC

One senior design team was tasked by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) to prototype a portable image sensor test bench.

"The test bench tests cameras that go on to the helmets of soldiers out in the field," said Jean-Olivier Allaire, fourth-year student and co-lead of the project.

He said the project timelines and demands matches what the students can see once they graduate from the UPEI program.

"People come out of school and they aren't quite sure how to use the skills that they have learned in school and apply them to the actual workspace," Allaire said. "So it is nice to know that what I am learning here is going to get translated into the workspace."

Jean-Olivier Allaire and his team were working on a bench to test cameras in low light situations. (John Robertson/CBC)

This is the second year that UPEI will be graduating students with the full four-year bachelor of science in engineering.

"We went from seven projects last year to 11 projects this year and probably in third and fourth year we will be looking at 17 to 20 projects for next year," McSorley said.

"So that just means that it will keep going up and that means we need more resources but it also means we can do a greater variety of projects and it just makes it more interesting for everyone."

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John Robertson

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John Robertson is a multi-platform journalist based out of Charlottetown. He has been with CBC News for more than a decade, with stints in Nunavut, Edmonton and Prince Edward Island. Twitter @CBCJRobertson Instagram @johnrobertsoncbc