The University of Tennessee Research Foundation was a proud sponsor of three UT Senior Design projects from the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering for the 2020-2021 school year.

UT Senior Design is a two-semester course that allows MABE students to apply their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems brought forth by a researcher, organization, or company.

“One of our department’s strategic goals has been to enhance the entrepreneurial culture for our students and faculty, and one of the ways we have achieved that is through working with UTRF and others to develop ideas for senior design projects that are all about innovation,” comments Matthew Mench, Interim Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering, and former MABE department head. “I think the student experience in these projects is fantastic. They get an open problem to solve that has real commercial potential, and they go after it.”

Under UTRF’s sponsorship this year, three teams of students worked closely with faculty mentors, project managers and UTRF licensing staff to design and build preliminary prototypes based on project proposals by the end of the school year.

Project managers included Matthew Layne, UT Turf Manager; Kyley Dickson, Associate Director, Center for Athletic Field Safety Turfgrass Management & Physiology; and Professor John Sorochan from the Department of Plant Sciences.

No Drift Chemical Applicator project prototype.

Layne’s project, “No Drift Chemical Applicator Accessory for Commercially Available Backpack Sprayers,” seeks to combat spray drift damage, which is a significant weed management challenge in the landscaping industry.

When landscapers apply herbicides to weeds with a backpack sprayer around sidewalk edges or hardscapes, changes in the wind can cause the chemical to spread beyond the target area, resulting in dead grass and other vegetation. Over the last year, Layne worked with MABE students to create a device that allows users to exchange a normal spray wand off of a backpack sprayer for a no-drift chemical applicator. The roller allows workers to directly apply herbicide to surfaces and limit spray damage. UTRF is currently working with an industry partner to commercialize the project’s prototype.

“It’s been a great process. I’ve really enjoyed interacting with the students,” says Layne. “I think what UTRF is doing is great. For these kids that are coming out of engineering school to say they have a patent-pending product — that’s pretty cool. It’s a really interesting program that pulls people from across the university, puts them in a room together to see what happens.”

Dickson and Sorochan co-submitted two projects: “Micro Agricultural Mower” and “Portable Rotational Traction Device.” The first project seeks to improve soil health, decrease the use of pesticides and decrease labor in the food production industry through the creation of a small, automatic mower. The latter tackles rotational traction challenges with a proposed device that will more accurately collect rotational traction information on sports playing surfaces. Currently, the two project teams are continuing to test and refine their prototypes.

“I enjoyed being involved in both projects,” says Dickson. “Both groups used their resources and were able to come up with many solutions on their own. They demonstrated and used concepts learned from their courses at UT to help them excel and complete their projects. This project showed the strength of the engineering program at UT and the education that each student receives.”

Prototypes of 2019-2020 senior design projects: Oral Hygiene Suction Attachment, Surgical Cheek & Lip Protector, and Bone Plate Adjustment.

UTRF first considered sponsoring projects after receiving its first invention disclosure from a senior design course project. In 2018, a team of UT students created a swim resistance training device that has been licensed to a company with the assistance of UTRF.

“That was an aha moment,” notes UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy.

UTRF began sponsoring projects during the 2019-2020 school year. They sponsored six senior design projects from the College of Nursing, UT Health Science Center and UT Medical Center, resulting in discussions with industry partners for two of those projects.

“Most of the projects we see take time to go from invention disclosure to prototype,” says Krishnamurthy. “These projects are great because you are leveraging students’ creative potential and the world class engineering program we have at the university to create products or devices that can solve a real-world problem. It’s a win-win for everyone.”