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Collaboration by Design

ENGS 89/90, Thayer’s capstone Bachelor of Engineering project sequence, gives students a final team-based, real-world professional experience in engineering analysis, design, and development. The following projects are a few of our faves.

Tackling Concussions

Students created the Mobile Virtual Player to simulate tackling and reduce injury risks for athletes.


MVP in Atrium 675px square
MOST VALUABLE PROJECT: Clockwise from left to right: Noah Glennon Th’14 ’15, Andrew Smist ’13 Th’14, Elliot Kastner ’13 Th’14 ’15, and Quinn Connell ’13 Th’14 are taking their Mobile Virtual Player to market.

The sun is setting on Memorial Field, filling the sky with wispy pink clouds as the stadium lights cut through the twilight. As the football players take the field, dance music blares at top volume from speakers set up on the sidelines, pumping up the players before the final game of the season—a high-stakes championship bout against Princeton.

One player stays behind, pacing restlessly back and forth on the running track, before being called in for a drill. At last, he zips onto the field and takes up a position facing a line of hefty linebackers. The whistle blows and the first player barrels down the field, hitting him with a loud crack and dropping him to the grass. In a second, he’s standing again, popping up like a Weeble and doing a theatrical little spin before facing down the next player in line.

Every year, emergency rooms treat 175,000 sports-related concussions in the United States, with the highest percentage from football. Research has shown that high school and college players suffer more concussions in practice than in games. Yet, this player seems unharmed by the hit. That’s because “he” is actually a Mobile Virtual Player (MVP), a remote-control tackling dummy created by a group of Thayer students to simulate tackling without putting a real person at risk.

The device started its life as a Bachelor of Engineering capstone project in the fall of 2013 and has since appeared on CNN and NPR, as well as being featured on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert—where the host, comically dressed in helmet and pads over his suit, performed his own tackle of the five-foot-tall dummy. Inquiries have started coming in from NFL, college, and high school teams eager to use the equipment in their own practices to cut down on player injuries. “We definitely saw the potential for this, and hoped it would take off,” says Quinn Connell ’13 Th’14, one of the students behind the project. “But I don’t think anyone was expecting how quickly it would move forward.”

MVP on Late Show with Colbert
“It was an amazing experience,” says Elliot Kastner, left, of appearing on the Late Show, where he bantered with Stephen Colbert, right, along with Buddy Teevens, center. Quinn Connell piloted the MVP across the floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater as Colbert dove in for the takedown. Photograph courtesy of Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Calling the plays on the field today is Dartmouth head football coach Eugene “Buddy” Teevens ’79, who has been a crusader for reducing injuries at practice—going so far as to ban full-contact practices back in 2010. Three years ago he was talking with his classmate John Currier ’79 Th’81, a Thayer research engineer, about mechanical ways the team might simulate tackling. “We decided the most effective way would be to take it to the Thayer School and position it as a capstone project,” says Currier, who reached out to Elliot Kastner ’13 Th’14 ’15, an engineering student and Dartmouth football player. He was enthusiastic about taking it on. “For the majority of my life, football and engineering have been living in separate worlds,” says Kastner, clutching the MVP’s remote control on the sidelines. “Now I got to see them come together.”

Joined by Connell and fellow students Andrew Smist ’13 Th’14 and Noah Glennon Th’14 ’15, the group blue-skied possibilities, considering all of the ways they could create something that would give players the experience of tackling while keeping them safe from injury—including drones, helicopters, and even using animals. “Should it float? Should it fly? Should it be shot out of something? We considered all of the possibilities,” says Kastner.

Finally, they settled on taking the classic football tackling dummy—but updating it to make it mobile. As they started researching, they found that the football dummy had been invented in 1936 and hadn’t been updated much since. The students interviewed players and coaches to figure out what they might be looking for, deciding on a humanoid form so players could practice proper form, leading with the shoulder rather than the helmet. They had players test different materials for tackling, zeroing in on a firm foam for the base and a softer moldable foam, surrounded by a vinyl cover, for the top.

Early on, the students decided the dummy would need to be self-righting, preferably within two seconds of being tackled, in order to maximize the number of drills in practice. That presented particular design problems. “The whole balance of the weight was a big issue,” says Smist. “We wanted to have enough weight in the bottom so it could stand up on its own and have enough weight in the top so they weren’t flying through it.”

The electronics they initially used in the drivetrain turned out to be too complex, constantly malfunctioning due to the repeated hits the MVP suffered. “It was definitely a delicate balance of trying to find that performance we wanted and still making it robust enough to be repeatedly tackled,” says Connell, adding, “How many engineering projects do people work on where the end goal is to make something that can be beat up?”

Kastner estimated that over three years of practices, the MVP would take 6,000 tackles. “My computer couldn’t take 6,000 tackles,” he says. Adding to the difficulty, the dummy had to be cheap enough that it could be mass-manufactured and affordable to college and high school teams working within limited budgets. “We could build a $10 million anatomic robot, but that wouldn’t be that useful,” says Kastner.

Currier was advising the project in a hands-off manner, letting students create their own design—and make their own mistakes. “There was one time when an early prototype was running around, and there was a fair amount of smoke coming out of it,” he laughs. “They were really persistent in coming up with something that would work.” By graduation in the spring of 2014, the team had completed a design and a number of elements but still didn’t have a fully functioning prototype. Kastner and Connell decided to continue working on the project, spending the summer of 2015 in Hanover working on the project in space at Thayer, repeatedly iterating different ideas. At one point, they were trying to engineer a new motor for the drivetrain, and unable to find anything that would work. In one of those “aha!” moments, says Connell, “we looked at the drill we were using to put things together. In a half an hour we were using the drill, and it worked.”

They ended up with a device that, for all of its bulk, is surprisingly agile. After the first tackle this afternoon, another linebacker charges ahead for his own takedown. But as he barrels down the field, the MVP skirts away from the attack, outrunning the player, who hits the turf empty-handed. The MVP does an extra spin, as if to drive home its victory.

One player who didn’t miss his tackle with the MVP was Madison Hughes ’14, who played rugby with Connell at Dartmouth before going on to captain the U.S. Olympic rugby team. Running into Connell and Kastner one day as they were testing their prototype, he made a short video of himself tackling the dummy and posted it online. Within 48 hours, the video had one million views, and suddenly the students’ phones started ringing with media who wanted to interview the inventors and coaches who wanted to buy an MVP.

 “It was an amazing experience,” says Kastner of appearing on the Late Show, where he bantered with Colbert along with Teevens and watched Connell pilot the MVP across the floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater as Colbert dove in for the takedown. All the media attention, however, suddenly meant that the students couldn’t continue to tweak the device in private. “The publicity has really put the pressure on us to get it out to the market first,” says Kastner.

The four students worked on a business plan with Tuck MBA student Alex Jenny ’10 Tu’16, a former Dartmouth quarterback, and gained advice from the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. Then Teevens, Kastner, and Connell formed a company, Mobile Virtual Player LLC, to take the project forward.

Asked if he thinks the MVP will make him rich, Kastner answers  with the diplomacy of a winning quarterback after a game, saying, “Protecting players is the most important thing.”

In the meantime, the now-former students are refining their prototype. They showed it at the American Football Coaches Association convention in January, and they hope that beta versions of the MVP will hit the field for testing by other teams in the spring. They are also looking further ahead. Mobile Virtual Player LLC sponsored two new 89/90 teams this year to help develop the next generation of the robot. Advancements could include attachments for use in other drills—for example, a hoop that a quarterback could use to practice throwing—and more sophisticated electronics that would make the MVP self-driving. “Right now, it is remote control, but we are working on making it programmable,” says Glennon. “Eventually, a team of four or five of them could all be programmed to run a certain drill together.”

Sometime in the future, a team of MVPs may be able to play a football game by themselves. Until then, they’ll have to content themselves with keeping their flesh-and-blood teammates free from injuries.

—Michael Blanding is a Boston-based writer and the author of The Map Thief.


Getting the Arsenic Out

Students pitch—and work to perfect—a prototype for removing arsenic from drinking water.


Safapani demo
Image courtesy of Safapani

With two minutes to make their pitch, two engineering majors stepped on stage to do what entrepreneurs and engineers do best: identify a problem and offer an effective solution. “Every day, 140 million people drink arsenic-poisoned water,” said Meili Eubank ’15.

As an image of a Nepali villager’s scarred, discolored hands—visible signs of arsenic poisoning—flashed on a large screen behind her, Eubank explained how the disease causes cancer and birth defects. Noting that just 20 percent of household wells in Nepal are equipped with water-filtration systems and that many of these have either failed or been rejected by villagers, she described current solutions as “difficult to maintain and lacking durability—in short, ineffective.”

Teammate Shannon Carman ’17 then spoke about SafaPani, a low-cost, reliable, easy-to-use water filtration system developed by Thayer students. “It’s a simple household solution to a complex global problem,” Carman said in closing.

That two-minute overview—and the team’s use of electrocoagulation to remove arsenic from residential wells—won top honors last winter in “The Pitch,” an annual entrepreneurship competition sponsored by Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab and the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. SafaPani, which means “clean water” in Nepalese, came away with funding and development support. The hope, according to Carman, is that the win—along with recent support from Dartmouth’s Class of 1980—will help the project gain the credibility and visibility it needs to become a viable business.

The project began in 2008, when David Sowerwine, cofounder of the VillageTech Solutions (VTS), approached Thayer School for help in creating an effective, affordable, and reliable solution for removing arsenic from residential drinking water. Arsenic contamination affects about 1 million villagers in rural Nepal, 80 to 90 million in Bangladesh, and tens of millions more people in Afghanistan, Bengal, China, and India, where water drains from the Himalayan Mountains.

“It’s a big problem that hasn’t gone away. No one has come up with an alternative solution that works, and governments are trying to ignore it,” says Sowerwine, whose VillageTech Solutions colleagues includes Thayer Overseer Edward “Skip” Stritter ’68. “It’s fantastic that Dartmouth teams have been hammering away at this project, year after year.”

The Thayer students’ filtration system consists of a nested two-bucket system that houses iron electrodes, an electronic controller, a common flush valve, a diffusion plate, and a layer of sand. In the process of electrocoagulation, iron electrodes in the first bucket are powered by batteries to inject iron into raw water over a 30-minute period, forming insoluble ferric hydroxides through electrochemical oxidation. Arsenic coagulates around these ferric hydroxides to form clumps of arsenic-ferric precipitates. After the half-hour waiting period, the user releases the water into the second bucket, which contains a layer of sand to catch the clumps. Clean water then percolates down to the collection vessel.

The first version of the system, created by Lindsay Holiday ’07 Th’09, Dana Leland ’09, and Philip Wagner ’09 as their capstone Bachelor of Engineering (BE) project, won the National Inventors Hall of Fames’ 2009 Collegiate Inventors Competition. Since then, three more BE teams have furthered the technology for their ENGS 89/90 project work.

Arsenic Removal Project Holiday and Leland
Lindsay Holiday ’07 Th’09 and Dana Leland ’09 demonstrate the first arsenic removal system that students created in 2009 as their capstone design project. “Arsenic is always going to be a problem until there is a comprehensive solution to it” says Safapani’s Carman. “We have a really great, enthusiastic team with lots of energy and ideas that no one person could ever come up with on their own.” Photograph by Douglas Fraser.

“These systems have chemistry, electronics, mechanical design, and fluid flow—most everything any engineering class ever had to work on,” Sowerwine says.

The SafaPani group emerged in 2013, after Nepali citizen and Thayer PhD candidate Aditya Mahara approached Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE) and offered to lend his expertise to any engineering project willing to address rural health issues in his homeland. With the ENGS 89/90 water filtration system in the late stages of development, DHE created SafaPani to provide organizational structure for the technology, with Mahara and Eubank as its first project leaders.

With DHE support, Mahara, Eubank, and Chad Piersma ’13 Th’15, a member of the 2013–14 ENGS 89/90 team, traveled to the Nawalparasi region of western Nepal in 2014 to conduct research and make connections with villagers and potential NGO partners. In the six villages where they tested residential tube wells, the students discovered that arsenic levels were 25 times higher than the World Health Organization safety standard. In five of the six villages, local residents identified arsenic poisoning as their biggest health issue. The students also met with water and health experts to discuss the chronic failures of filtration systems in the region and to strategize about how to meet the need for more effective technologies.

Sowerwine, a chemical engineer who advises both the ENGS 89/90 and SafaPani club students, considers electrocoagulation to be the best current technology for resolving the persistent problem of arsenic poisoning at the residential level in Nepal. “With electrocoagulation, we feel confident that if there’s a reliable flow of electricity, it’s going to throw off a certain amount of iron that will do something predictable—take the arsenic level down below 10 parts per billion—and make the water safe to drink,” he says. “If the electricity isn’t working, people will know when the system isn’t working. That’s our insight.”

SafaPani has attracted a diverse team of engineering students, as well as biochemistry, biology, chemistry, economics, environmental studies, geography, and government majors. The club has one team focused on technology development and another on everything else—research and data collection, the economics of the filter, outreach, and building partnerships with NGOs, manufacturers, and distributors.

Although administrators, faculty, and partners are involved in advising and oversight, SafaPani is driven by students. “We’re transitioning from students to real-world engineers and thinkers, so it’s students who run the meetings, and ultimately, it’s students who make the final call,” says Eubank.

Still, faculty input is welcome. For example, technology team members Eldred Lee ’16 and Collin McKinney ’18 met weekly with Professor Ryan Halter Th’06 last winter in the context of an independent study course, ENGS 87: Engineering Investigations, to discuss experimental protocols and results. “I was able to provide this team with laboratory equipment and support in obtaining sufficient training to conduct experiments with arsenic,” says Halter.

Halter also advised the 2014–15 team of ENGS 89/90 students—Scott Hansen Th’15, Stephen Jenkins Th’15, Jamie Potter Th’15, and Julia Zaskorski Th’15—as they worked on the arsenic filtration system. “This team developed by far the most refined version of the prototype,” Halter says.

Closing in on what they thought was close to a final product, the 2014–15 team and SafaPani students sent three sets of equipment to VTS for testing. Unfortunately, the testing revealed persistent problems.

“While the results initially seemed discouraging, the team was able to pick out specific ways the tests could be improved to yield better results,” says Carman, who stepped into SafaPani’s leadership role  following Eubank’s graduation. “Our main objective is to strive for consistency across all the prototypes and then evaluate whether additional features, such as a stirring mechanism, should be added to improve the effectiveness.”

In another kind of setback, this year’s ENGS 89/90 class didn’t field a team focused on the arsenic filter.

But SafaPani has emerged with an energetic plan to move the project forward. The SafaPani team has recruited new members and has begun planning another DHE trip to Nepal to test prototypes in the field, gather user feedback, and engage its NGO partners.

“Arsenic is always going to be a problem until there is a comprehensive solution to it. We’ve invested so much time, and there is absolutely a commitment to the project,” Carman says. “We have a really great, enthusiastic team with lots of energy and ideas that no one person could ever come up with on their own. It will be cool to see how impactful we can be.”

That’s a pitch that appeals to Sowerwine. He remains optimistic that the work of the ENGS 89/90 and SafaPani students will come to market and benefit the people of Nepal and other areas affected by arsenic contamination.

“Helping to make the world a better place isn’t quick or easy,” Sowerwine says. “I appreciate the energy and expertise that Dartmouth students have devoted to this project and the people who will benefit. It continues to be a privilege for us to work with these talented students.”

—Kimberly Swick Slover is a writer based in Wilmot, New Hampshire.


Capstone Standouts

Professor Douglas Van Citters ’99 Th’03 Th’06 tells why these ENGS 89/90 projects are his faves.


Development of a Smart Deep Brain Stimulator

This project was groundbreaking in that the students developed a closed-loop feedback system for deep brain stimulation,” says Van Citters. “Entire laboratories around the country were devoted to this, and the team of three students successfully implemented a system in rats in only six months.” Developed by the 2007-08 team of Christina Behrend ’07 Th’08, Shiraz Cassim ’07 Th’08, and Matthew Pallone ’07, the project won the 2008 Dartmouth Society of Engineers Prize. “We implemented Christina Behrend’s ideas, and the collaboration was incredibly useful to me and to her—she is now an MD/PhD student in a lab at Duke doing DBS-related work,” says the project sponsor, Geisel School of Medicine Professor Dr. James Leiter ’75 DMS’79.

Speed Controlled Pivot Lock for Tilting Three-Wheeled Vehicle

three-wheeled vehicle
Photograh by John Sherman.

Adam Danaher Th’09, David Drennan Th’09, Kyle Lobisser Th’09, and Laura Weyl Th’08 developed a speed-controlled pivot-lock mechanism to prevent a three-wheeled motorcycle from falling over when it comes to a stop. According to Van Citters, “For six months an experimental motorcycle shared the large frame lab with Dartmouth Formula Racing and turned a lot of heads.” The design also earned the team the Dartmouth Society of Engineers Prize at Investiture in 2008. Project sponsor and Tilting Motor Works CEO Bob Mighell ’85, who rides a modified version of the three-wheeler, says, “It was very helpful for us to take the initial concept and create a prototype.” The bike can be ordered at tiltingmotorworks.com.

Porous Media Condensing Heat Exchanger for Space Vehicles

space vehicles
Courtesy of NASA.

NASA needs a reliable life support system that can function for up to two years for its anticipated long-duration missions to Mars in the near future. One of the greatest challenges has been condensing water in microgravity. Working with project sponsor NASA Glenn Research Center, Sean Currey ’11 Th’11, Broghan Cully ’11 Th’11, Michael Kellar Th’11, and Max Fagin Th’11 developed a working prototype to regulate the humidity of a simulated spacecraft interior. “Perhaps most memorably,” says Van Citters, “this project flew in microgravity aboard the ‘Vomit Comet’ to demonstrate its utility in a reduced gravity environment.” While aboard the NASA plane flying parabolic maneuvers to achieve zero-gravity conditions, the student team gathered data from the prototype to send on to NASA for further review.

An Audio-Visual Solution for Every School

Looma in Nepal
Courtesy of Audio-Visual Solution team.

The team of Alyssa Belisle Th’12, Rachelle Morris ’12 Th’12, Roja Nunna Th’12, and Peter Williams Th’12 used cultural anthropology and design thinking to develop an inexpensive, integrated computer-projector system that can access the Internet and run off a battery. “This project was among the best examples of engineering for a full system,” says Van Citters. “The team developed a self-contained device that was culturally appropriate, scalable, and modifiable to meet the needs of any rural community in any developing nation.” The team’s design, called Looma, became the proof-of-concept for project sponsor VillageTech Solutions (VTS).

“The collaboration with Dartmouth has been crucial for the success of Looma continuously during the intervening four years,” says Edward “Skip” Stritter ’68 of VTS, who worked with students to develop and test prototypes in rural schools in Nepal. “We are about to ship version two to Nepal,” he says.

Water Recovery from Diesel Generator Exhaust

diesel generator
Photograph by Douglas Fraser.

Conor Galligan ’11 Th’12, Merritt Jenkins ’10 Th’12, and Eric Packer ’12 Th’12 designed a novel solution to the challenge of reliably providing water to soldiers in the field. “The technology is now patent pending,” says Van Citters, “and can be quite useful for remote operating sites where transportation of water can be either expensive or dangerous.” Water is condensed using a combination of absorption refrigeration and ambient air heat exchange and is subsequently filtered in preparation for use. This system, designed for sponsor Logos Technologies, could potentially serve as an on-site water source that reduces the need for water delivery via convoy, saving the military millions of dollars each year.

Bioresorbable Surgical Sponge

Bioresorbable Surgical Sponge
Photograph by Jon Guerrette.

Mix a chemist, a biologist, and an economist and you get a completely marketable surgical sponge that can be retained after surgery and disappear harmlessly,” says Van Citters. Surgical sponges are frequently misplaced during surgery, and the solution—developed by Devon Anderson ’10, Jon Guerrette Th’10 ’15, Nate Niparko ’09 Th’10—involved a fibrous mat of bioresorbable oxidized cellulose and oxidized alginate. Although the product has not yet been approved for use in humans by the FDA, “we still see the project as useful,” says sponsor Dr. Vince Watts with the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt. “We are interested in investing in long-range solutions, and remain optimistic that projects like this will eventually take hold and realize their potential benefits.” The project was a 2010 Collegiate Inventors Competition award winner.

Expandable Hydrogel Sphere for Orbital Implantation

Expandable Hydrogel Sphere for Orbital Implantation
Image courtesy of Expandable Hydrogel team.

Elizabeth Chang Th’12, Amanda Christian Th’12, and Christopher Ng Th’12 developed an $8 medical device to help children born without eyes in India. “This is a fine example of technology used to solve a problem in a developing nation,” says Van Citters, who accompanied the students when they went to Madurai, India to present their solution in person to project sponsor Aurolab. Their hydrogel implant, which featured expansion properties that match those of a natural human eye, was a finalist in the Collegiate Inventors Competition.

—Theresa D’Orsi is Alumni News editor at Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: alumni, curriculum, design, entrepreneurship, faculty, innovation, patent, projects, students

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