EPICS Generator Awards honor projects serving global communities

The Engineering Projects in Community Service program, known as EPICS, is a national, award-winning, social entrepreneurship program. About 400 students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University participate each semester through more than 60 ongoing EPICS@ASU projects.

Those students work together in teams to design, build and deploy systems to solve engineering-based problems for charities, schools and other not-for-profit organizations. Currently, EPICS@ASU is working with over 50 community partners on projects that span four different themes: community development, education, health and sustainability.

At the end of each academic year, the EPICS Generator Awards provide the opportunity for students, faculty members, industry mentors and community partners to celebrate the success of the teams and individuals involved in EPICS.

For the 2020­–2021 academic year, three EPICS teams were recognized along with 22 individual student awardees in different categories. Additionally, an industry mentor and community partner were recognized for their contributions to EPICS@ASU.

Daniel Hoop, executive director of clean-water-access nonprofit organization 33 Buckets and a Fulton Schools environmental engineering alumnus, gave the keynote address during the EPICS Generator Awards event. He talked about his own EPICS journey and how he was able to leverage his experiences into a full-time career after graduation.

“I think that most importantly EPICS is a program that you’re going to get out what you put in, especially during the struggles,” said Hoop. “Ambiguity and unexpected obstacles come up. That’s the first step in really becoming a great engineer and one who can solve real-world problems and work on impact-based projects.”

Hoop ended his presentation with a bit of inspiration for the current EPICS students.

“You rise to the level of your highest aspirations,” said Hoop. “While your goals are important, your system will determine your success and achieving them. So always focus on that system.”

Recognizing EPICS teams 

The Impact Award is given to teams that have the potential for significant impact on local or global communities and have shown meaningful understanding of the populations they serve. This year’s Impact Award was presented to three teams that all worked closely together for the integrated project known as 33 Buckets. The winning teams were the Sensor Development team, the Internet of Things team and the Rainwater Harvesting team.

Water shortages are common all across the world. Vast numbers of people suffer due to this challenge, so 33 Buckets is working to provide improved water-harvesting solutions. The EPICS teams worked to find methods that would fit the daily lifestyle of a given community and would not inconvenience people’s lives.

“This solution is going to help a lot in automating chlorine disinfection systems in Peru,” said Mark Huerta, a lecturer in the Fulton Schools and co-founder of 33 Buckets. “There are so many communities 33 Buckets is working with near Cusco, Peru. The new system is going to be piloted this summer, and it has tremendous scalability potential to provide clean water to a lot of people in these communities.”

Huerta began 33 Buckets as an undergraduate student in the Fulton Schools and has worked with many engineering students over the years to continue developing multiple aspects of the project that began while he was an EPICS student. This year Huerta was given an Outstanding Service Award for his work with the group.

“I specifically chose to work on the human-centered design side of the project because the problem was just so relatable to me,” said Tina Sindwani, a first-year computer systems engineering major who worked on the rainwater-harvesting team. “When I used to live in India, we had water outages often. However, it rains tremendously during the monsoons there, and water could easily be collected. We just need a system in place. It is amazing to know that I could design a system to solve a problem I knew firsthand.”

The Innovation Award is given to a team that has developed an inventive solution for their project. These solutions involve conceptualizing, prototyping and implementing a unique design that has widespread opportunities to help those who need specific help.

This year’s Innovation Award was given to the Memory Glass team, which developed a digital smart glasses attachment that offers memory assistance to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The Memory Glass team has been working on their solution for several years now. It started as a very rough prototype and went through multiple iterations get to the current attachment for eyeglasses.

Over the course of their project, the Memory Glass team has made significant progress and embraced valuable feedback from their mentors while taking advantage of the many different resources at ASU. They were able to expand their idea from learning how to go about completing the necessary steps to implement their solution to providing their product to everyone who needs it.

The Catalyst Award, given to a team that has progressed exponentially in their design and implementation process, was given to the Waste Audit team.

The Waste Audit team evaluates the process of identifying the particular types of waste entering local landfills.

The team is working to solve the problem through capturing information to aid local businesses with opportunities to divert some waste to create valuable products.

Recognizing EPICS community involvement

In addition to recognizing students who are making an impact in communities around the world, the EPICS Generator Awards also acknowledge community partners and mentors who help the students reach their goals.

The Community Catalyst Award is given to a community partner that displays an exceptional level of involvement and goes above and beyond to support their EPICS project and student team. The community partners are the reason EPICS students become passionate about their projects as they are the principal customers of the program.

This year the award was given to ASU Project Cities, a team that over the last two years has worked with ASU students on five different EPICS projects. The award is shared by Steven Russell, program manager of Project Cities, and Tracie Hlavinka, town manager of Clarkdale, Arizona.

Russell collaborates with ASU faculty working with EPICS programs and provides numerous resources. The student teams that work with Project Cities ultimately get their project written up in an ASU Project Cities report that is published and presented to town managers, city managers and city leaders throughout the state for consideration for implementation.

Hlavinka and her staff meet with the students on Clarkdale teams on a regular basis.

“One of the Project Cities teams has researched and analyzed the lack of broadband (internet access) in Clarkdale,” said Hlavinka. “Because of their work, we are able to give good reliable information to our Regional Broadband Action team to apply for state and federal funding for broadband infrastructure.”

One of the biggest accomplishments that the ASU students have had so far in Clarkdale is their work in the downtown business district.

“The Project Cities students have drafted design standards for the downtown area of Clarkdale,” said Hlavinka. “These standards were developed after the ASU students held a thorough public-input meeting. The document was so well written that the design standards will be included in the town of Clarkdale’s upcoming 2022 general plan. The town of Clarkdale values the work and time that each of the facilitators, faculty members and students contribute to the program and the success of Clarkdale.”

The Navigator Award is given to an academic associate who consistently provides guidance, mentorship and support to teams while helping them to challenge assumptions, pivot when necessary and arrive at innovative solutions.

The 2021 Navigator Award was given to Tom Zender, a mentor to CEOs, business coach and leadership developer. He has also been an EPICS mentor for several semesters and brings both engineering expertise as well as business acumen to his guidance for EPICS students. For example, Zender has been able to help teams with interpersonal communications. Many EPICS projects involve working with overseas partners, and Zender has been able to help them overcome the challenges of connecting cross-culturally.

Recognizing EPICS individuals

EPICS projects rely on student-led teams, and the Outstanding Team Leader Award is given to students who go above and beyond. These students are organized, motivate their team and keep their projects moving forward. This year, 10 students were awarded the honor: Michael Backlund, Lidija Buchanan, Andrew Deros, Mikayla Gerdes, Annika Giesa, Gabriel Gutierrez, Emily Hagood, Abigail Jansen, Dimitri Mihaylov and Lucianne Morin.

These leaders are often described as driven and hardworking; they motivate others and create an inclusive environment where their collaborators can share ideas. They also display enthusiasm that matches their technical knowledge and do a great job of seeking feedback and input in their projects.

Finally, the Rising Star Award is given to EPICS students in either their first or second semester who are making significant contributions to their team and bring enthusiasm, passion and dedication to EPICS.

Rising Star Award students are relatively new to EPICS and are still learning how to best be successful with their projects. They take it upon themselves to try to achieve as much as they possibly can. This year, 12 rising stars were recognized for their contributions, and program leaders look forward to seeing what these inspiring students have in store on their epic journeys: Gabriella Alessio, Jasmine Amoako-Agyei, Nathaniel Anbar, Alison Fahy, Sanjin Gonilovic, Arnob Kabir, Philip Kyeh, Luke Macy, Sharmila Nimbkar, Tyler Porter, Zachary Whaley and Cristine Zambrano-Ortega.

Erik Wirtanen
erikw@asu.edu