UPEI student engineers solve challenges for community partners

Student engineers at UPEI took part in 30 community-based projects this year, including helping a young Mi'kmaq drummer make music and designing a better way to play bocce in a wheelchair.

1st-year to 4th-year students come up with engineering solutions as class project

A group of engineering students and a volunteer with Special Olympics stand in front of a golf cart turned into a bocce ramp
These engineering students designed a ramp that makes it easier to roll a bocce ball for someone in a wheelchair. Natasha Benoit, centre, is a volunteer with Special Olympics. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

From a better way to play bocce in a wheelchair, to a tracker that adjusts solar panels, this year's projects by students at UPEI's Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering are making a difference, as the young engineers learn important lessons about their future profession. 

"Other schools don't have this, year after year working on projects, and certainly not with the community," said assistant professor Libby Osgood.

"They're learning about the things that they would learn in other schools, but here they're implementing it, and practicing it."

Natasha Benoit, a volunteer with Special Olympics, came to the engineering program looking for a better way for athletes in wheelchairs to play bocce. 

A golf cart with a plastic ramp holding a bocce ball
The ramp for rolling the bocce ball is a golf bag cart fitted with an acrylic plastic ramp. The athlete can roll the ball from four different heights by pulling the string. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

"The athletes are of all different ranges of abilities, so some you have to help more than others," she said. "So it became a challenge to hold a ramp, hold the ball, help them with their hands."

Benoit said the new ramp will make a huge difference for some of the athletes.

"A bocce ball can be quite heavy, and some athletes don't have the ability to hold something that heavy," she said.

A woman in a wheelchair pulls a string to release a bocce ball along a ramp.
Natasha Benoit says the new ramp allows the athlete to pull on a cord to release the ball, and frees up the volunteer's hands to help in other ways. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

"For the volunteer, it frees up our hands so we can be more animated, and more helpful, and just make it a better experience."

Spencer Blacquiere, a third-year engineering student, said he's looking forward to seeing athletes using the invention.

Getting to see them actually use what we've built is going to be rewarding.— Spencer Blacquiere, UPEI engineering student

"That's going to be a very special moment, and something we've been looking forward to this whole semester," he said. 

"You design this project with the athletes and the volunteers in mind, and getting to see them actually use what we've built is going to be rewarding."

Drumming device

For second-year student Amara Sanchez and her classmates, the challenge was to find a way for a young Mi'kmaw boy to take part in traditional drumming. 

"He has very limited mobility, and he can only move his arms within a certain range," Sanchez said. 

She said the new device should let him "participate in his traditions, such as playing the drum alongside his peers, and connect with his roots."

Three engineeering students stand in front of a wheelchair and a device that makes a stick hit a drum.
For second-year student Amara Sanchez (left) and her classmates, the challenge was to find a way for a young Mi'kmaq boy to take part in traditional drumming. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

Sanchez said one of the biggest challenges was making a design using a traditional handmade drum and drumstick. 

"We didn't want to harm or damage the instruments because they're handmade, they're unique," she said.

Sanchez described the moment when the device finally worked as "a eureka moment." 

Two students look as a mechanized drumstick beats on a traditional drum.
The drumming machine uses traditional drums and drumsticks. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

"We had some feedback from the Indigenous knowledge faculty here at UPEI, and they were also incredibly happy," she said.

"After all of this hard work, this stress and tears, it was very, very rewarding to hear positive feedback on our project."

Solar automation

Mac-Donald Duru and his group of fourth-year engineering students were tasked with a project involving solar panels. 

"Our clients were Sunly. They had a racking system that doesn't move, and you have to manually go and rotate it four times a year during the seasons. But they wanted us to automate that process. 

Three students stand in front of a solar panel in a big room at UPEI
Mac-Donald Duru and his group of fourth-year engineering students were given a project involving solar panels. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC)

"Besides the regular challenges you get, like technical difficulties, the strike that the university had didn't help because we weren't able to get feedback from our professors," Duru said. 

"Just seeing it come together was very fulfilling for myself, and a lot of the team members."

I think it's the first moments of, I could do this for the rest of my life. It's really inspiring.— Libby Osgood, Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering

"You can just see this spark in their eye, and an understanding of, 'This is what engineers do,'" Osgood said.

"I think it's the first moments of 'I could do this for the rest of my life.' It's really inspiring."


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.