Engineering student immerses herself in the creation of a promising grocery-shopping app

By Brelyn Powell
Tuesday, June 6, 2017

This story previously appeared in Volume 10 of Impact.

Sierra Semel, a second-year mechanical engineering student at VCU, is constantly coming up with creative ideas for new products. Last fall, what started as an ordinary class assignment grew into an unexpected opportunity to see what it takes to bring an entrepreneurial idea to life.

The assignment required students to submit an idea to OpenIDEO, a global community of innovative thinkers exploring solutions to problems through online challenges. Each challenge runs for several months at a time and focuses on a specific issue. This time, it was reducing food waste. Drawing on personal experience, Semel laid out the initial plans for a mobile app called Expire.

“As a busy college student, I often lose track of exactly when I buy my groceries,” Semel said. “I wondered what would happen if, somehow, I could be alerted when the groceries I bought were about to go bad.”

Expire lets shoppers scan grocery store receipts and arrange data into a “digital pantry.” On future shopping trips, users can see their pantry and prevent purchasing items they already have. Taking into account each items’ typically shelf life, Expire then notifies users as products approach their estimated expiration dates and even offers recipe suggestions.

Semel was proud of her idea, but was not sure it would stand out among the 450 other submissions. She was surprised a few weeks later to learn that Expire had been selected to advance to the “refinement phase” of the challenge. With just two weeks to conduct research and polish her proposal, Semel sought help from her peers in VCU’s Innovate Living Learning Program. “It took a lot of work to refine my original idea for the app,” she said. “Without the help of my Innovate cohort, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish so much in such a short time.”

Semel’s Innovate cohort of da Vinci Center students from VCU’s arts, business and engineering schools and the College of Humanities and Sciences were critical in helping her gather the data she needed to take Expire to the next level.

“The Innovate curriculum follows the da Vinci Center model in drawing on the strengths of each individual student and encouraging them to pool those strengths when they work together,” said Aaron Forrester, one of Semel’s Innovate instructors. “The ideas that come out of such a collaborative environment are phenomenal.”

Forrester had assigned the class to participate in the OpenIDEO challenge, and when Expire advanced to the refinement phase, he reworked scheduled lessons to incorporate Semel’s project as an opportunity for hands-on experience. Some students conducted interviews in the community to gauge interest in an app like Expire, and others created illustrations and stop-motion animation videos to prototype design concepts. “It was helpful to work with peers who have a different way of thinking than I have as an engineering major,” Semel said. “That collaboration fueled my project and demonstrated how living on campus has enhanced my VCU experience.”

Semel has benefited from living on campus at the Grace and Broad Residence Center as part of the Innovate program, and her merit-based scholarships have meant she hasn’t had to worry about how to afford it. The Mark A. Sternheimer Scholarship in Honors, a renewable award that Semel has held for two consecutive years, is awarded to multiple honors students in the School of Engineering. In total, Semel has received $3,000 from the scholarship and used it to help with the costs of tuition, living and textbooks.

Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering and Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair in Biomedical Engineering, is grateful for donors like Sternheimer, whose support is integral to the work of ambitious students.

“We are lucky to have a friend and benefactor like Mark Sternheimer, who provides so many of our students with opportunities they otherwise may not have access to,” Boyan said. “The financial support he provides to our students through scholarships allows them to take a dream or idea and make it real.”

Sternheimer hopes his support helps students like Semel afford experiences that prepare them to tackle real-world problems. “I want these students to have confidence in their ability to solve problems,” Sternheimer said. “They work hard and are using their talents to make a difference in the world.”

Expire was not selected to advance beyond the refinement phase, but Semel believes in its potential. She has continued to work on the app and doesn’t plan to give up.

“I have a better understanding of what it takes to actualize an idea,” she said.