Cal Poly’s New College of Engineering Lab to Transform Lives Through Community-Focused Engineering and Computing

TECHE Lab Will Encourage Faculty, Students to Tackle Societal Challenges

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Leveraging Cal Poly’s unique Learn by Doing approach to have a wide impact, a new center created by the College of Engineering will pair students and faculty on engineering-driven projects that address challenges that people face in today’s world — from the individual to the societal — using engineering and computing expertise to improve the human experience.

The university has announced that the TECHE Lab (Transforming Engineers through Community Hands-on Engagement) will aim to create and further real-world, systemic change and will work to engage social scientists, ethicists, public policy specialists, community partners and other to focus on driving broad societal change using Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“We believe that engineering students are acutely aware of societal challenges and have a true desire to solve them,” said College of Engineering Dean Amy S. Fleischer. “By providing a vibrant center focused on using technology to advance equity, they can have a positive, longstanding impact on the world. 

“While our faculty and students are already known for impactful projects, this center will amplify our impact as we expand our mission and benefit the global community.” 

Students in the College of Engineering already work to improve lives of others. Recent senior projects have created a robot that could detect and extinguish fires; designed and manufactured a prosthetic foot for a wounded veteran who surfs; and created multiple pieces of equipment enabling a man with severe cerebral palsy to run triathlons with his father. 

Meanwhile, student clubs such as the Cal Poly chapter of Engineers Without Borders employ engineering skills to address pressing challenges on a number of fronts — including water, education, food security and energy — both locally and across the globe. Other clubs also address individual challenges, including one project that entailed creating prosthetic hands for a boy who had been badly burned in a deadly DUI accident.

“Our mission is to transform lives through community-engaged engineering and computing,” said Lily Hsu Laiho, TECHE director and chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department. “TECHE is devoted to activities that will change the lives of large groups of people and allow us to bring together these enthusiastic and empathetic engineers to challenge, learn and support each other.”  

Current projects pose a range of challenges and include creating a hand strength and dexterity enhancer for people who need help with everyday tasks including writing, lifting and holding objects; and designing new personal protective equipment — like face masks, hand sanitizer holders and face shields — that are more comfortable and convenient. 

While students will continue to address tailored challenges for now, the center plans to expand into broader societal challenges using systems-level approaches and amplify their impact on millions of people around the world. 

TECHE is expected to enhance Cal Poly’s reputation as an international leader in the use of technological solutions to drive societal change while developing greater faculty expertise in systems-level thinking. At the same time, the approach will be integrated into the curriculum, preparing students to have a positive impact in the world, and a greater diversity of ideas will be welcomed as a means to encourage a variety of innovative ideas and solutions. 

Pearse Lipscomb, who has been helping others through engineering since his freshman year, said engineers are uniquely trained to improve living conditions.

“In my opinion, engineers are equipped to create social change because of the power of the design process,” said Lipscomb, a biomedical engineering student, who currently serves as the president of a multidisciplinary student association that designs and builds solutions to physical challenges people face. “If engineers ground their innovation in a drive to improve the human experience, they can apply problem-solving techniques, skills and attitudes to revolutionize the way people interact and live their lives.”

Contact: Charlotte Tallman

September 22, 2020

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