Unforgettable experience

The STARS team pictured with its device. From left, Ran Wei, Bridget Powers Beggs, Emmett Donnelly-Power, Aparna Paul, and Rohan Sinha.

Unforgettable experience

With support from the Case Alumni Foundation, experiential learning programs are helping science and engineering students expand their education—even in the time of Covid.

It’s no surprise that people who have had their lower leg amputated struggle with balance and control, even with a modern prosthesis. But their main problem is not that artificial leg. It’s the lack of sensation beneath their foot.


Evan Vesper, an electrical engineering major at the Case School of Engineering, had done enough research to know that those natural sensations trigger reflex responses that help us move. Maybe an electrical impulse could spark a similar response, he theorized, giving new agility and confidence to the wearer of an artificial limb.


At many schools, he would have had to wait until graduation to explore his theory in a hospital or a research center. But as a student at Case Western Reserve, he’s eligible to apply to SOURCE, a university-wide program supported by the Case Alumni Foundation in awarding research grants to undergraduate students in engineering, science and mathematics.


Thanks to SOURCE and the CAF, Vesper spent last summer collaborating with researchers at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, investigating how protheses can be enhanced to allow a person to feel sensation in an artificial limb.


“It was a really great experience,” said Vesper, who worked with the Motion Study Lab of Ronald Triolo, PhD, a  Case professor of biomedical engineering. “A big part is that you’re able to devote your full attention to the research. During the year, you always have class competing for your attention. But when the research is your job, you can commit to it full time.” 


In recent years, leaders at the Case School of Engineering have worked to make experiential learning a sturdier cornerstone of a Case education. Upon arriving in 2018, Dean Venkataramanan Balakrishnan accelerated efforts to expose students to hands-on lessons and real-world opportunities. 


“We’re trying to make sure they experience the excitement of engineering,” he explained to the board of the Case Alumni Association.


Alumni leaders are supporting the emphasis on experiential learning and at times have re-allocated funds to offer new options. Here are four programs supported by the Case Alumni Foundation that are widely used by STEM students:


Making research a summer job

SOURCE stands for Support of Undergraduate Research & Creative Endeavors. The program awards research grants to undergraduate students with a worthy idea, allowing them to pursue a research project over summer break.


The Case Alumni Foundation has supported the program since its inception in 2004. This year, the CAF committed $110,000 to SOURCE for the second straight year.


“The Case Alumni Foundation is a significant contributor to our summer program and we are very grateful,” said SOURCE director Sheila Pedigo, PhD.


Students pitch a research project in an area of interest. If their idea is accepted, they are matched with a faculty mentor and awarded a grant–typically $3,500—to see where the research will take them.


“That allows you to dive deep into a project, and to get a real feel for what it means to work in a lab, to contribute to science,” Pedigo said. “It really is putting them into the thinker-researcher mode. Like, what if this project isn’t going as expected? They have to learn how to figure things out.”


Over the past 15 years, the CAF has contributed more than $1 million to SOURCE, enhancing the education of students like Evan Vesper. Scheduled to earn his bachelor’s degree this year, he plans to stay at Case to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.

“So I’ll keep working in this lab, and I’ll do a master’s thesis on my research,” he said.


Innovating around Covid

When he was chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, David Zeng, PhD, each summer led a group of students to China to study and collaborate at Tianjin University. Study abroad opportunities ended with the pandemic, as did many other enrichment programs. In 2019, some 90 percent of Civil and Environmental Engineering students participated in a summer internship or co-op. This past summer, many of those positions were cancelled. What’s a rising civil engineering program to do?


Interim department chair Xiong “Bill” Yu, PhD, approached the Case Alumni Foundation for options. The foundation reallocated $15,000 in funds that once sent Zeng’s students to China and funded Yu’s idea for remote research projects designed by Case faculty.

This summer, 10 students were paired with a faculty advisor on eight-week projects focused on structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, the environment and critical infrastructure.


Undergraduates like Ellen Chen, a fourth-year civil engineering major, experienced research for the first time. Working with a doctoral student, she conducted risk assessments of high-hazard dams in Ohio, a study given urgency by recent dam failures in Michigan. She identified more than 1,500 dams scattered across the state and learned that many of them need work.


“It was a good experience,” she said, adding that she’s looking into applying machine learning to the risk analysis. That’s just the kind of problem-solving the project was meant to promote.


“They’re dealing with issues that need a better solution,” Yu explained. “This gives students an opportunity to think more broadly, about an algal bloom or a dam breach, and realize the societal impact that could have, and engineer a solution.” 


Time to think energy

As he pursues undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and economics, Rohan Sinha also has a company to excite him. As a ThinkEnergy Undergraduate Fellow, he was part of a team that launched STARS Sensors—a startup with an idea for a new kind of industrial sensor. That’s what happens when engineering students are freed up to stretch their imaginations.


“It was awesome,” said Sinha, a fourth-year student from the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville. “I’ve never had such a well-balanced experience in something—where I really felt I was learning no matter what I was doing. Everything had some long-term value.”


Each year, the Great Lakes Energy Institute at the Case School of Engineering awards fellowships to about a dozen students, ThinkEnergy Undergraduate Fellows, who spend a portion of the year studying energy challenges and solutions. The program connects the fellows to faculty mentors and industry experts. It also groups them into startup teams and introduces them to entrepreneurship. 


The CAF began directly supporting the program in the last two years with a $20,000 contribution each year. That allowed the institute to double the value of its scholarships, to $2,000.


“The idea is to allow our students to become researchers,” said Grant Goodrich, executive director of GLEI. “Instead of having a job in the bookstore for four hours a week, we want them thinking about energy.” 


He’s especially proud of the recent cohort, made up of students who generated three companies:


  • EnvironFlo devised an environmentally friendly solution for oil spill clean-up, using a superhydrophobic coating on a mesh screen to separate oil from water
  • STARS Sensors developed a low-cost, self-powered sensor that analyzes industrial equipment and flags potential problems 
  • HBAC is building software that tracks building occupancy using WiFi routers to optimize HVAC usage


Two of the ThinkEnergy companies—EnvironFlo and STARS—were accepted into the University Accelerator of the Clean Energy Trust, a business accelerator that supports cleantech solutions in the Midwest. 


On September 17, STARS won the competition and its $25,000 cash prize. Which is why Rohan Sinha, the young CEO, has a company on his mind.

“I’m a huge proponent of experiential learning,” he said. “I know I Iearned a lot more from this experience than I would have from a textbook.”


Hello think[box] Fellows

Students bring all kind of ideas to Sears think[box], the university’s acclaimed innovation center, but few would leave the building with a prototype without the Student Project Fund.

The fund turns college students into makers and entrepreneurs by covering the costs of materials and equipment and sometimes manufacturing. It’s become a key part of the innovation ecosystem at the Case School of Engineering. 


This year, the Case Alumni Foundation took steps to boost the Student Project fund and support more engineering innovation. A $15,000 commitment led to the creation of “think[box] Fellowships”—awards designed for science and engineering students with bright ideas.


Ian Charnas ’05, the program director at Sears think[box], said the gift will bring some badly needed stability to the program. In recent years, Sears think[box] has relied upon donors to replenish a project fund that distributes about $50,000 each year. With major gifts lagging, the fund was in danger of drying up, Charnas said.


In December, he presented his dilemma to the board of the Case Alumni Foundation. Soon after, he had his solution.


“The alumni association swooped in and saved the day,” Charnas said. “It’s members saw the value of hands-on, experiential learning.”


To learn more about the Case Alumni Foundation and how it supports students and experiential learning, please contact Emily Speer, Director of Gift Planning & Grants Compliance, at Emily.Speer@casealum.org; 216-368-2044.

“It was a really great experience. A big part is that you’re able to devote your full attention to the research. During the year, you always have class competing for your attention. But when the research is your job, you can commit to it full time.”

—Evan Vesper

Evan Vesper with the poster explaining his idea for inducing sensations with electrical stimulation

“That allows you to dive deep into a project, and to get a real feel for what it means to work in a lab, to contribute to science. It really is putting them into the thinker-researcher mode. Like, what if this project isn’t going as expected? They have to learn how to figure things out.”

—Sheila Pedigo, PhD


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