The VCU School of Engineering Foundation has presented the Mark A. Sternheimer Senior Capstone Design Award to seven teams for the 2016-17 year. The award, established in 2012 by Sternheimer, a Foundation Board member and benefactor, promotes innovative and entrepreneurial projects. “This year, we had three Electrical & Computer Engineering teams, three Biomedical Engineering teams and one multidepartmental team” win, said Ben Ward, Ph.D., capstone design coordinator, director of project outreach and professor in the School of Engineering. Fourteen finalists out of 23 applicants made presentations on Nov. 18, 2016.

Below are the 2016-17 award winners. Click each title to learn more.

Walking and other activities generate impacts to the sole of the foot that, if reliably mapped, can give valuable information to rehabilitation specialists and health care providers. An interdisciplinary team of undergraduates from VCU’s School of Engineering has received a Sternheimer Award for a 3D printed shoe insole sensor array that sends foot pressure data to a consumer-grade smart device. The sensor array can map foot impact from a variety of activities, and its smart device application means it can gather data in non-clinical settings.

This project was developed by seniors Derek Faltz and Fawei Zhang of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and seniors Chad Majewski and Andrew Perkins of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE). Their faculty advisers are Weijun Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer engineering, and Hong Zhao, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

The insole contains a pressure sensor array comprising 3D printed flexible semiconductive compound layers with silver ink circuit lines on the surface. When the layers are compressed, a corresponding change in resistance produces analog voltage. The voltage is detected by a multiplexer, amplified and converted into a digital signal for wireless delivery to a smart device. “People will be impressed by how streamlined it is, because it’s completely inside a shoe,” Faltz said. “All they see is an Android application that presents information in ways they can understand.”

Environmental scientists need to know where harmful algal blooms, which cause significant environmental and health problems, are taking over aquatic ecosystems. But having researchers go out on foot or under water with handheld spectrometers is time-consuming, and using costly satellite imagery is not precise enough for local analysis. A team of undergraduate computer and electrical engineers at VCU has a new solution: fly a drone. Computer engineering majors Quan Ma, Kenny Parker and Jose Ramirez, and electrical engineering major Chris Lillard, all seniors, have received a Sternheimer Award for their project. A. Vennie Filippas, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and associate dean for Undergraduate Studies, is their faculty adviser.

The team is creating a Remote Aerial Mapping Spectrometer (RAMS), a device that will mount under an unmanned aerial vehicle to map algal blooms and to measure plant health. The device will use a combination of field spectroscopy and laser surveying to create a 3-D graphic. Spectroscopy goes far beyond the kind of images captured by standard cameras by using many channels of light that allow researchers to differentiate between kinds of surfaces, identify plants and measure photosynthetic productivity. The data will be positioned and viewed as a three-dimensional visual point cloud of surface measurements, which researchers can filter as needed. Providing farmers with localized data about plant health could allow them to use less fertilizer and reduce agricultural runoff, the team said.

A team of undergraduate students at VCU is researching how to make solar cells that are more efficient and durable while significantly less expensive. As an alternative to silicon solar cells, which are produced through a costly manufacturing process, the group is working on making cells created with perovskite materials more efficient. Such perovskite cells, which are made up of organic and inorganic compounds, need to be protected from humidity and other ambient conditions. Electrical engineering seniors John Carli, Feras Kakish, Kapil Marahatta and Jason McAlesse have received a Sternheimer Award for their project. Ümit Ӧzgϋr, Ph.D., Qimonda associate professor and graduate program director, and Vitaliy Avrutin, Ph.D., research assistant professor, both of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are their faculty advisers.

The team will encapsulate each cell in a coating to prevent moisture from causing the perovskite material to degrade and encapsulate it between two pieces of glass. The students will use a photon conversion layer to allow more of the energy from the UV light to penetrate and be used, increasing the efficiency of the cell. The rate at which improvements to efficiency in perovskite solar cells have been made has outpaced earlier industry methods, making these cells a promising technology to encourage the use of solar power as an alternative to nonrenewable energy sources.

A team of undergraduate students at VCU wants to make it easier to distinguish — especially in the critical early stages — between two movement disorders: early stage Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor. About 28 percent of the elderly have movement disorders, and patients often appear to have similar symptoms and can easily be misdiagnosed. A group of biomedical engineering senior students is creating a device that will gather data to help physicians screen patients by tracking head and hand movements. Raghav Atluri, Khade Grant, Kelsey Hideshima and Matthew Schneck have received a Sternheimer Award for their project. Paul Wetzel, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is their faculty adviser.

One challenge in diagnosing such movement disorders is that the frequency of a patient’s tremor is difficult to discern with the human eye. To measure this objectively and quantitatively, the system incorporates a virtual reality game controller to evaluate hand tremors. For tremors of the head, a head-mounted device tracks how severely and how often the patient shakes. “Our goal is to develop a tool that can improve diagnostic accuracy ratings and help with early treatment, which can ultimately lead to better outcomes,” said Schneck, whose grandfather had Parkinson’s disease.

Tumor biopsies and many other in-vitro tests require harvesting primary cells for examination, but current cell sorting methods are complicated, time consuming and expensive. A team of undergraduates at VCU proposes to solve this problem with a new system that uses cell adhesion strength to reduce the time and cost of cell sorting. Working with Christopher Lemmon, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, seniors Devin Mair, Franck Kamgo Gninzeko, Emily Burtch and Sarah Saunders have received a Sternheimer Award for their low-cost cell sorter.

The idea for a different approach to cell sorting was inspired by recent discoveries indicating that different cell types adhere to surfaces at different strengths. The team’s proposed system begins with an assessment of cell adhesion strength, after which the cells are adhered to a modified culture flask the team designed and produced. The bottom of the flask is then removed and the adhered cells are placed on a second custom-designed device that uses a pump to sort the cells selectively using flow-rate calculations based on cell adhesion strength. The proposed system is much more cost-effective than cell sorters on the market today, which start at roughly $5,000 and require expensive supplies such as antibodies.

“We went through many design iterations,” Mair said. “When we finished, we had something that could be produced profitably for about $2,000.” The team members hope that their system will improve health care by removing barriers to primary cell research for treatment of cancer, diabetes and other diseases.

The nebulizers used for inhaled medications are ineffective in treating emphysema, COPD and other diseases that reside in the lung’s deep, branching alveoli. A team of biomedical engineering undergraduates at VCU is working to address this problem with an electrospray device that produces and delivers medicinal nanoparticles to the lung’s hard-to-reach areas. Seniors Sanam Solanki, Ying Ngo, Shengyi Lai and Savraj Saggu have received a Sternheimer Award for their project. Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is their faculty adviser.

Nanoparticles are 1,000 times finer than the microparticles delivered by conventional inhalers and have a better chance of reaching deep lung tissues. Solanki said sending microparticles to the alveoli “is like trying to get a football field through the door,” while nanoparticle delivery is like “trying to get a football through the door.” Nanoparticles also aggregate less during delivery and make dosage easier to control.

Their prototype uses a syringe pump that operates two capillary nozzles at 180-degree angles for particle neutralization and formation of nanoparticles. Using a simulated lung, they are running a polymer and a mock drug through the device and testing the size and charge of the particles. They are also testing deposition in order to ensure that some of the particles reach the alveolar region of the lungs. Their goal is an electrospray device that would successfully produce and deliver nano-sized particles into the lung. A technology like their prototype may help future researchers develop systems that deliver pulmonary drugs effectively, with less waste and toxicity.

According to the National Institutes of Health, less than one-third of adults who would benefit from hearing aids has ever used them. One barrier to treatment of hearing disorders is proper diagnosis, which requires equipment and expertise beyond the scope of many general practitioners and family doctors. A team of undergraduates in the VCU School of Engineering is working to address this challenge by creating a portable pure-tone audiometer that conducts automated hearing tests and exports results to a specialist for analysis.

Zachary Clute, Zachary Conner, Min Su Ju and James Le, all seniors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have received a Sternheimer Award for their portable audiometer. Two seniors in the School of Business entrepreneurship program, Diana Rivas and Nathan Hawrysko, are also working on this project. The team’s faculty advisers are Michael Cabral, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical engineering, and Daniel Coelho, M.D., associate professor in VCU’s Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery.

Their portable audiometer screens for sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs due to nervous system damage, and for conductive hearing loss, which occurs when sound waves are unable to pass from middle to inner ear. Standard hearing tests require an audiologist and a soundproof booth, as well as specialized sound-production equipment and calibration tools. The team’s portable audiometer is much more streamlined — roughly the size of a pair of over-ear headphones, making them portable enough to travel with. They hope to make the device “accurate, affordable and durable enough to send abroad with doctors, while still being applicable in a modern hospital.”