Innovation at UC Merced

It may not have been the television show Shark Tank, but for UC Merced students wrapping up the spring semester, the pressure was likely just as intense.

UC Merced students make their presentations during Innovate to Grow at UC Merced.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The students were engineering majors who spent most of this past semester working on ideas that might improve things in such areas as manufacturing or public safety.  

The students’ final presentations were made during the fifth annual Innovate to Grow conference held on the campus on the Friday before graduation.

Organizers say the purpose of Innovate to Grow is to celebrate student innovation.  Throughout the daylong event, demonstrations of some of the engineering solutions created by student teams were presented to the public. 

A panel of judges which included faculty and business representatives questioned the teams at the end of each presentation.

Audience members view a student presentation at Innovate to Grow. Photo by Steve Newvine

Prototypes of the projects were on view in a gymnasium set up as an “Engineering Design Expo” earlier in the day.  The presentations began after a lunch break.

Ideas included a new way to load chickens into the correct processing holding areas.  In the chicken processing industry, a lot of labor is used to make sure this is done properly. 

The students working on the chicken loading prototype believe their device could drastically reduce the amount of labor needed to do this task. 

Their job on this particular Friday afternoon at the end of the semester was to convince the panel looking at their presentation to see some potential in the project.

Another idea centered on helping restaurants lower their energy use to save money on their utility bills.  Restaurants generally consume a lot of electricity and natural gas.  The students working on this engineering project proposed a solar energy generation solution that would help reduce what a local restaurant pays for energy. 

Their solution also included energy efficiency.  They talked about how the recent installation of LED (light emitting diode) lamps in fixtures throughout the restaurant helped lower energy usage immediately. 

The installation of aerators on all faucets in the facility helped reduce water waste.  Aerators disperse the flow, creating more pressure while using less water. Water saved not only helps in the dry Central Valley, it also reduces energy use to heat it for hot water needs in a restaurant.

 Innovate to Grow was held the day before commencement at UC Merced.  Photo by Steve Newvine

Other ideas explained before the judging panels at the conference included a system that handles tomatoes with kid gloves by touching the tomatoes in a gentler way, a new way to remove byproducts of the logging industry to eliminate fire hazards, and a process to remove the hardness of water in food processing. 

In each case, the student team worked with either a private company or a public agency to determine needs for their proposed solutions.

For the panel, the students presented power point slides that, in some instances, included animation and video.  Each presentation began with a mission statement for the student “company” that was offering a solution to an industry issue.

The audience included proud parents (this was graduation weekend), interested students, and others who registered for the Innovate to Grow event. 

The panel asked good questions.  And while their personal fortunes were not on the line as the sharks on Shark Tank lead us to believe week after week, the opportunity for students to respond to questions about their projects was in itself a valuable learning experience.  

Steve Newvine lives in Merced