Students vie for funds in mechanical engineering innovation contest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Over the next six months, four teams will compete for $10,000 in funding as part of the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE) Innovation Competition. The contest kicked off Oct. 5 as the student teams presented their ideas for innovations to a panel of judges comprised of Penn State faculty and alumni.

The competition, made possible through an anonymous donation from a mechanical engineering alumnus, allotted $10,000 to fund student innovations based on the quality of their pitches and their budgetary needs.

Four teams participated, and after deliberation, judges announced each team's first allocation of funds. Teams will be required to show progress at two deliverable dates over the next six months for further allocation, and they will showcase their final prototypes in early April.

The first team to present proposed a vertical greenhouse that will allow small-footprint organic agricultural production. Team members are Jared Yarnall-Schane (mechanical engineering), Dustin Betz (biology), Mike Ghen (computer engineering), Michael Zaengle (architecture), Jonathan Gumble (landscape contracting) and Kenneth Palamara (environmental engineering).

The second team proposed to create a reconfigurable modular robotics kit to introduce the concept of robotics to middle school, high school and college students, thereby generating interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Team members include Randy Schur, Peter Heibert and Chris Dickson, all mechanical engineering seniors.

The third team proposed an interactive device for the hand that would facilitate physical communication and interaction with the technologies around us, like computers and television. It would also have applications in robotics technologies. Team members include Zack Francis, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Eli Knebel, a computer engineering senior.

Geoffrey Andrews was the last presenter, and he proposed an idea to produce a low-cost, lightweight robotic hand using stereolithography with potential applications in prosthesis development. Andrews is a sophomore mechanical engineering major.

The panel of judges consisted of Marty Trethewey, the Arthur L. Glenn Professor of Mechanical Engineering and professor-in-charge of mechanical and nuclear engineering undergraduate programs; Hosam Fathy, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Elizabeth Kisenwether, assistant professor in the School of Engineering Design and co-director of Lion Launch Pad and the new University-wide entrepreneurship minor; and mechanical engineering alumnus Raymond Stevens, founder and head of operations at AltheRx Pharmeceuticals.

Judging mimicked the popular "Shark Tank" television program on ABC. According to Timothy W. Simpson, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, who helped coordinate the event, "The MNE Innovation Competition was a great opportunity for us to encourage innovation in our undergraduate students while also being innovative in how students presented their ideas. The students did a great job, and the judges were supportive yet willing to ask the tough questions. I think everyone had fun and learned a lot from the event." 

More about the MNE Innovation Competition can be found on its website at and blog at

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Last Updated October 23, 2012