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Making it real
Author: Kathryn Kirkland and Katie Hall; photography by Kelly James
Posted: September 14, 2009

Imagine getting course credit while simultaneously building career connections and answering a community need. This describes what Senior Capstones at the University are all about.

In a Capstone project, teams of senior-year students with different majors work together to solve—not just study—a community-identified need. The students think critically, apply what they've learned, and oftentimes develop new skills while getting on-the-job training.

More than 230 of these community-based research projects are completed each year, and Capstone students provide a huge part of the 1.3 million volunteer hours contributed annually by the University to the community—an estimated value of $21 million.

From roof gardens to monitoring marine habitats, sustainability projects were a strong focus this past year. Many Capstones allowed students to see the practicality of their work, such as a 3-mm-thick fan prototype that was handed off to Intel. What follows are just a few of the projects taken on by graduating seniors this past spring.

Robert GassoMoving air in a tiny space

BUILD A FAN that is not quite as thick as two stacked pennies. That was the task given to four mechanical and materials engineering students for their Senior Capstone.

Under the guidance of professor Chien Wern and mentored by Intel thermal mechanical engineer, Jered Wikander, the students created a rough prototype that their project partner Intel is now evaluating.

Labeling the 3-mm-thick, air-moving device a fan does not do it justice. There is no traditional radial device or rotating motor, says Wern. Instead a wire coil magnet causes a diaphragm to vibrate and push air out. It is small, quiet, and could probably be mass produced for less than $3 a piece.

Cooling small mobile computers is the intended application for the flat fan, but Intel engineers are working to see if its design is viable.

PICTURED: Robert Gasso

using cell phone-based acoustics to study marine lifeListening underwater

THE SOUND OF fish, boats, or underwater construction tells researchers a lot about the health of a marine habitat. Equipment for this kind of monitoring is expensive and inflexible. So a device built by three engineering students, which uses a cell phone, hydrophone, waterproof casing, and open source software, makes budget-strapped agencies happy.

The Nature Conservancy sponsored the Capstone project as part of a five-year initiative with Portland State to provide technology for conservation problems. The students worked under professor Martin Siderius, electrical and computer engineering faculty.

The seniors designed and built a passive cell phone-based acoustic system that can be used to monitor maritime or freshwater habitats. It takes advantage of cell phone services such as GPS and wireless communication. One day, the system may even be able to call a researcher with its immediate findings, such as a motorboat in a restricted area.

Right now the students' device stores the data for later analysis.

"This is an exciting system for monitoring remote places such as Spirit Lake (wiped out by Mount St. Helens in 1980) by the U.S. Geological Survey," says Lisa Zurk, a director of the Nature Conservancy/PSU partnership. The conservancy has plans for future use of the device locally and by its Hawaii team.

PICTURED: (left to right) Amra Ljucevic, Minjun Zhuo, and Emily Smith

rooftop plantersHanging out among the plants

LOOK UP AND SEE GREEN is the name and inspiration behind a huge student volunteer effort to transform a bleak campus terrace into a welcoming and educational green space.

The terrace tops the distance learning wing of the Urban Center Building on Southwest Sixth between Mill and Montgomery streets. Today, native plants and a bamboo windscreen fill the terrace planters, many of which are connected to benches. Eco-roof display tables tell a story, and water captured from an existing canopy into rain barrels keeps the whole thing green.

The project began more than a year ago, when students in professor Barry Messer's Neighborhoods and Watersheds Capstone invited the campus community to offer ideas for the terrace. Students, faculty, and staff responded and in some cases provided sketches of their dream garden.

There was not enough time and money to implement all the ideas, but student Patricia Graf and others would not let the project die. "I was inspired by the ideas and efforts of people I respected, my peers and professors in the department," says Graf.

Over the course of the past year, more than 60 students volunteered their time. Many people and local companies, including Living Walls and Edible Skylines, helped students with the planning and building.

"The success of this project was really in connecting these resources," say Graf, "and empowering students to utilize their strengths as well as learn new ones."

PICTURED: Cherize Ramirez, foreground, and (left to right) Derek Abe, Patricia Graf, Claire McLeod, Rajeev Indiranagaraju, and Jeremy Spaulding

students confer over researchTracking tobacco marketing

DOES YOUR CHILD stop at a convenience store on the way home from school? Chances are he or she is bombarded by cigarette ads. They appear on store windows, walls, and sandwich boards, and may be right next to ads for popsicles and candy.

Capstone students worked with the Multnomah County Chronic Disease Prevention Program to map tobacco advertising around K-8 schools. Ultimately, the county could use the students' findings to shape public policy.

"Tobacco and signage regulations are complex, but tobacco companies are clever at getting around them and advertising to a vulnerable audience—children," says Meg Merrick, Urban and Public Affairs instructor for this Capstone.

"Studies show that getting hooked on tobacco before age 18 likely results in a lifelong habit," says Merrick. With the goal of preventing chronic disease, the county program is aimed at discouraging the start of this habit.

Students used GPS mapping technology and a listing of businesses to identify possible tobacco retail outlets. They then documented what they found at stores within a half mile radius of elementary, middle, and high schools in parts of Multnomah County. At many stores, the signs were big, everywhere, and right next to ads for products that kids like.

"I now notice these ads everywhere I go," says Merrick. "The county does not have the people power to collect this evidence. I am glad our students could."

PICTURED: Students (left to right) Ben Harper, Kimie Ueoka, and Mike Conley