Engineering students showcase elegant solutions to real-world problems at Capstone Design Expo

One team of biomedical engineering students creates a prototype of a childproof handgun safety mechanism to help curb accidental injuries and deaths.

Zoie Sickey, Kelly Salguero, Brianna Roberto and Corinne Leonard at the Capstone Design Expo
From left: Zoie Sickey, Kelly Salguero, Brianna Roberto and Corinne Leonard at the Capstone Design Expo. (Daniel Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

By Joan Tupponce

From 2015 to 2020, there were at least 2,070 unintentional shootings by children, resulting in 765 deaths, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The group’s research shows that one in four of these shootings was by a child five or younger. One in four of the victims also were five or younger.

Many of these incidents occur when young children find a loaded handgun in the home and mistake it for a toy. Use of trigger locks or a lock box can prevent these tragedies, but many gun owners fail to consistently use them.

The prevalence of these incidents motivated project manager Zoie Sickey and her team, BME 106, all biomedical engineering majors at Virginia Commonwealth University, to choose a project related to gun injuries for their Capstone Design project for the College of Engineering. It’s title: “Preventing Unintentional Gun-Related Injury and Mortality: A Low-Cost and Accessible Gun Safety Device.”

“The project not only sounded really interesting, but the overall issue of preventing unintentional gun-related injuries was a topic that I felt not only needed addressing but is something I have a personal connection to given that I grew up in a household with firearms,” said Sickey, a senior.

Art Kellerman, M.D., senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System, first posed the project to Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of VCU Engineering, last summer.

“As an emergency room physician, he was concerned that children were unintentional victims but that he was confident that engineering students could, indeed should, bring their innovative intellect to finding simple and viable solutions to the problem,” Boyan said. “As a biomedical engineer myself, I was confident that Team BME 106 would be up to this challenge. Their elegant design does not disappoint.”

A signature event of the VCU College of Engineering, the annual Capstone Design Expo represents the culmination of the graduating class’s education and offers design teams the opportunity to display and demonstrate their working prototypes to the Greater Richmond community. The event also serves to increase the awareness of the engineering profession among middle and high school students. More than 375 students participated in this year’s event.

The projects are the product of a yearlong Capstone Design course, led by Michael C. Mancini, Ph.D., director of project outreach and the capstone program, which immerses senior engineering students in the hands-on processes of solving practical real-world problems.

Through their projects, student teams practice customer discovery, the engineering design process, and rapid prototyping. Working with sponsors, students tackle this practical learning experience by solving real-world problems under real-world constraints, learning fundamentals of teamwork and applying learned theory.

The work from Team BME 106 exemplifies the capstone teams’ focus on addressing real-world issues with sophisticated solutions. The team was concerned that new gun owners lack the proper knowledge and training for handling and safely keeping a gun in their home, said senior Corinne Leonard.

“Unfortunately, when this occurs children can fall victim to unintentional gun injuries and deaths. This concern drove our motivation for the project to create a device that would cater both to gun owners, by being easily accessible, and parents to keep their kids safe,” said Leonard.

“Many gun owners believe that it is more important to be able to quickly reach a loaded handgun for self-defense than to eliminate the risk that their child, or a visiting child, might find it,” Kellerman said. “Studies have found that parents tend to underestimate their children’s curiosity and their tendency to play with forbidden objects. The VCU team set out to find an engineering solution that would solve both problems: provide ready access to the adult in a way that prevents the handgun from being fired by a young child.”

The Zore X Core is a gun lock with a mechanism that blocks the firing pin from meeting the ammunition and prevents the slide from fully closing. The team worked to create a product that would allow for the lock to stay attached to the firearm and allow an automatic transition to remove the firing pin block. To prevent children younger than 10 from the unlocking the device, the team intends to use mechanical switches or pressure sensors that react only to an adequate amount of force – an amount of force larger than a young child could muster.

The project presented several challenges, especially for senior Kelly Salguero and Leonard who were faced with learning the mechanics and lingo of firearms.

“Luckily for us, Zoie and [team member] Brianna [Roberto] had experience with firearms and were happy to answer any questions we had,” Salguero said.

Another challenge the team faced was not being able to have access to the gun, Glock 43, or a 3D-printed shell of the gun to help them create a prototype for the project.

“I personally am a visual and hands-on learner, as I believe most engineers are, so it was difficult for us to prototype by solely relying on a CAD model or image,” Leonard said. “This was something that really couldn’t be mitigated because of restrictions set by VCU, for obvious reasons. However, we managed to prototype to the best of our abilities and with the help of VCU police we are able to have access to a Glock 43 under supervision.”

The project was a learning experience for all four team members who were able to collaborate with people they would not ordinarily have met at VCU, Sickey said.

“I definitely learned a lot more about firearms in general through my work on this project, especially in terms of the safeties internal and external already in place and why people are so apprehensive to use them,” she said.

The project also had a personal meaning to Roberto, who has a 2-year-old son.

“I could not imagine him getting into our firearms by accident or not,” she said “I want all parents to have access to safety mechanisms, so children aren’t dying from unintentional gun deaths. I hope this project spreads awareness about this topic and more research is conducted.”

Several teams earned honors at the 2022 Capstone Design Expo including Excellence in Design Awards, the Best Industrial Project, the Dean’s Choice Award and the People’s Choice Award. Winning teams are as follows:  Excellence in Design Award winners for 2022 are as follows:

Capstone 2022 Award Winners

Project Listing on VCU Engineering Website

Excellence in Design Award

Biomedical Engineering 1st place

  • Project Number: BME 111
  • Project Name: Processing Pipeline for Neuromonitoring Event Detection
  • Team Members: Kavya Puthuveetil, Dane Nielson

Chemical and Life Science Engineering 1st place

  • Project Number: CLSE 206
  • Project Name: Design of a Drinking Water Treatment Plant for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Subs
  • Team Members: Ryan Kim, Aya Djebbari, Nawal Elhag, Marisa Bausone

Computer Science 1st place

  • Project Number: CS 304
  • Project Name: Privacy-first Blockchain-based Data Sharing for Cancer Radio Therapy
  • Team Members: Omar Abdalla, Elle Estwick, Zachary Fowler, Tony Kemp

Electrical and Computer Engineering 1st place

  • Project Number: ECE 404
  • Project Name: Drone Controller
  • Team Members: Omari Thara, Mohammad Haroon, Mcdonald Adede, George Mitchell

Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering 1st place

  • Project Number: MNE 504
  • Project Name: 3-D Modeling and Analysis of Byrd Park Pump House Machinery
  • Team Members: Ethan Downing, Jessica Dinep, Benjamin Jewell, Maria Robinson

Multidisciplinary Teams 1st place

  • Project Number: MULT 615
  • Project Name: Modular Entertainment Light Fixture
  • Team Members: Alicia Olivo, Henry Holweger, Amy Ariel, Gabriel Odachowski

Best Industrial Awards

  • Project Number: CS 330
  • Project Name: Helping online authors become more profitable through data aggregation and analysis
  • Team Members: Amr Omar, Nicole Casero, Vy Nguyen, Romel Terrazas

Dean's Choice Awards

  • Project Number: BME 109
  • Project Name: Objective Measurement of Finger Tap, Tremor and Rigidity During DBS Surgery
  • Team Members:Danielle Paige De Vera, Nick Kaviani, Raghav Saravanan, Anjali Ta, Kaung Sithu

People's Choice Awards

  • Project Number: BME 109
  • Project Name: Objective Measurement of Finger Tap, Tremor and Rigidity During DBS Surgery
  • Team Members: Danielle Paige De Vera, Nick Kaviani, Raghav Saravanan, Anjali Ta, Kaung Sithu