Fasenmyer Design Conference Showcases Student Ingenuity

Capstone research teams work closely with business and industry sponsors to develop creative solutions to engineering design challenges.

Capstone research teams work closely with business and industry sponsors to develop creative solutions to engineering design challenges.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

More than 280 students presented their capstone projects during the School of Engineering’s Richard J. Fasenmyer Engineering Design Conference. The projects included a robotic drum kit, a cold-weather pickleball, and a titanium-alloy container for the core samples NASA plans to collect from the Psyche asteroid. “Capstone research teams work closely with business and industry sponsors to develop creative solutions to engineering design challenges,” said Dr. Tim Kurzweg, director of the School of Engineering. “The process distills what students have learned in class and in the lab and applies that knowledge to integrated engineering projects.” This year’s conference included projects sponsored by Northrop Grumman, Parker LORD Corporation, Wabtec, and Westinghouse Electric. NASA funded six teams, each of which advanced an element of the Psyche mission, which will study the remnant core of a metal-rich asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.

A Space Capsule

The psyche spacecraft is scheduled to launch in August and arrive at the asteroid in 2026. Scientists hope to photograph craters on the surface of Psyche in order to learn more about the asteroid’s origins. Some believe it is a failed planet. Four Behrend students—Colton Hervatin, Easton Hooks, Jacob Sampsell, and Thomas Zbezinski—designed a containment vessel for a follow-up mission, when NASA plans to collect core samples from Psyche and return them to Earth. “We had to design a vessel that can endure a harsh environment,” Sampsell said. “It also has to protect the samples on their return to Earth. It will take NASA several years to collect that material. We don’t want all that effort to be wasted because of a crack in the container.” With help from their faculty adviser, Dr. Charlotte de Vries, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the team designed a vessel that can hold twelve rods packed with core samples. To close it, they designed a lid with a tucked hinge. They didn’t have to look far for a working model: The charging case for their Apple AirPods closes the same way.

A Cold-Weather Pickleball

A second team of students—Tristan Grimm, Amy Nolte, and David Peterson—designed a product for use in another challenging outdoor environment: Minnesota’s pickleball courts. The students created a cold-weather pickleball. The project’s sponsor, GAMMA Sports, believes the new material—a blend of polypropylene and high-density polyethylene—can extend the northern season for the sport, which combines elements of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong. Pickleballs tend to crack in cold weather. The ball designed by the Behrend team is more durable, due to both the material blend and the decision to spin-weld the ball’s halves. The spinweld eliminates the seam, where any variation makes the ball vulnerable to cracking. “It also makes the ball bounce faster,” Grimm said. “Good players are going to notice that.” The students didn’t know much about pickleball at the start of the project. Neither did their adviser, Dr. Gamini Mendis, assistant professor of engineering. Now, he keeps a paddle in his office.

A Robotic Drum Kit

When the drummer had another commitment, Alison Huffman would sometimes sit in with the Penn State Behrend Jazz Ensemble. “The drummer is the core of any band,” she said. “They’re the time-keeper. When you don’t have that, it’s a lot harder for the rest of the band to practice.” Dr. Joel Hunt, associate teaching professor of digital music and director of the jazz ensemble, asked Huffman to come up with another option. She and two classmates, Kushal Kharel and Katrina Stevenson, designed a robotic drum kit, with a control box that simultaneously can play a cymbal, snare, and kick drum. The system can maintain different tempos in four time signatures. “It took a lot of trial and error to get there,” Huffman said. “Technology is binary. It’s very black-and-white. Music isn’t like that. It’s a real challenge to make technology match up with anything related to art.” Like most capstone projects, the drum kit is a prototype, with some DIY engineering mixed in: The pulley wheels are tied to the pedals with fishing line. Ten-pound dumbbells hold the motor boxes in place. It works, though. The students ended their Fasenmyer presentation with a brief concert: One note, played again and again, just the way they had programmed it.