A new program at Cal Poly Pomona aimed at promoting innovation and supporting STEM students in their freshman year recently wrapped up for the academic year with a competition in which students unveiled concepts for an electronic companion, a computerized parking system, and an at-home test for viruses that make people sick.
The program, dubbed Cal Poly Pomona Shark Tank, is part of a larger CSU effort through the STEM Success program to improve retention among freshmen majoring in the STEM fields.
“The whole endeavor had to have two main goals,” says Steve Alas, biological sciences professor and director of the Science Educational Enhancement Services (SEES) program. “One was to engage the students early on because we know we lose a lot of STEM majors between year one and two. The other was to show them how interdisciplinary the STEM majors are.”
Alas says a third goal was to encourage incoming students to become problem solvers and leaders.
“Part of STEM Success is a new freshman innovation program where students identify a societal problem,” he says. “They had to come up with a problem and figure out how to address it. The idea is to commercialize some aspect of science or engineering to solve or address that problem.”
This year’s cohort, which was the first, consisted of 10 students organized into three teams. The teams had three-and-a-half months to take their project from concept to a prototype that could be demonstrated to a panel of judges. The projects were:
- Electronic companion: The students programmed a miniature computer to hold conversations with humans. It is intended to help people with mental disabilities or illness by being embedded in an object of personal affection. “For kids it could be put in a stuffed animal, or for adults it could be put in a harness and put on a pet,” says Alas.
- Parking system: Students developed small sensors for parking spots that communicate wirelessly with a central system, and a mobile app. The user would be able to open the app and see where spots are open in a parking lot without driving around searching.
- At-home virus detection: The kit developed by the students would allow someone who was not feeling well to run a quick test to see if they have a viral infection. “They could customize it to something like influenza or HIV,” Alas says.
Alas says the students performed well and impressed the judges, as well as CSU administrators who were in the audience for the event. He hopes this year’s students will go on to participate in the CSU Innovation Corps, a similar-style competition that pits students from all 23 CSU campuses against each other.
He also envisions Cal Poly Pomona Shark Tank growing much larger, with next year’s cohort containing up to 100 students.