Praxis III co-instructor receives Faculty Teaching Assistant Award
Xinyue Crystal Liu (MSE) is among fourteen staff and faculty members honoured for their leadership, citizenship, innovation and contributions to the Faculty’s teaching, service and research missions.
Liu played a key role in developing EngSci’s new design course, Praxis III. She also helped design assignments for individual home use when the course had to go online during the pandemic, and has (re)developed content and materials for several other courses.
New EngSci course enhances experiential learning and global perspectives
Team NASSA stands with their cold air bubble piping system for the Thailand-based “Klongs for All” project. (Photo: Safa Jinje)
By Safa Jinje
In early December, more than 200 third-year Engineering Science students presented their collaborative solutions to a range of challenges — from recycling plastics to clearing invasive plants from canal waterways.
The two-day showcase was held in classrooms across U of T Engineering and recorded for organizations around the world, including partners based in Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Uganda and South Africa.
“Engineering is about people — it’s about the human condition,” says Professor Philip Asare (ISTEP, EngSci), who co-leads the course with Professor Sasha Gollish (ISTEP, EngSci).
“We want students to be able to see how technical work is influenced by all the human dimensions: the setting, the context, the people you are working with and the capacity you have.”
Held for the first time this year, the redesigned Praxis III course builds on the success of Praxis I and II — two first-year classes that introduce students to the models and tools of engineering design, including communication, teamwork and professionalism. Praxis III expands these learning opportunities to students in their second year while introducing a global element.
This year’s cohort collaborated with business students at Georgia State University as they designed and tested their functioning product prototypes, which propose solutions to the challenges faced by communities around the world.
In one of the projects from Ghana, called “The Potential of Recycled Plastics,” Makafui Awuku, who is the founder and CEO of Mckingtorch Africa, invited students to look for novel ways to re-use plastic and sawdust in the creation of new building materials.
Mckingtorch Africa recycles and upcycles plastic waste to create new products such as plastic mats, food-ware and makeshift beds. The social enterprise is exploring the production of wood-like panels for construction made from recovered sawdust and plastic.
“Each of the five teams decided to focus on a different part of the value chain, from acquiring sawdust to mixing it with plastic, to measuring properties of the produced composite wood/plastic panels,” says Asare. “The collection of projects when viewed together provide a great overall value for Mckingtorch Africa.”
Team DTUS stands with their device Jim (Just Insert Material), a thermal testing system, for “The Potential of Recycled Plastics” project. (Photo: Safa Jinje)
Students researched the local community, culture and practices to create designs that would provide benefit to the client while ensuring cultural sensitivity.
“Empathy is introduced as a core concept in Praxis III,” says Victoria German (Year 3 EngSci). “We had to do a lot of non-functional research to better understand the community we are serving.”
Instructors led students through reflection assignments, lectures, classroom discussions and hands-on building exercises that reinforced the importance of empathy in their designs.
During their presentations, teams also made an argument for why their designs would be relevant to the community that they were working with, through both the lens of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and what they understood about the people and their needs.
“We spent a lot of time on the conception of the design. It was really important for us to make sure we were meticulous at every stage,” says Rasam Yazdi (Year 3 EngSci). “We definitely gained good experiences out of this from working with computer-aided design models to electrical work and the actual build.”
Praxis III is intended for second-year students, but this first iteration was introduced to third-year students due to pandemic-related delays. The next iteration begins in the winter term and will have close to 300 second-year students.
“This course requires us to innovate in a number of ways, especially with supporting the hands-on technical work through our partnership with the Myhal Fabrication Facility,” says Asare.
“We’ve produced important systems and processes that supports the course work from a parts and components perspective. We have also introduced a procurement process, and tools and widgets to help students work well in their labs.”
Asare believes the experience has been a positive one for his global peers.
“The global partners are interested in these kinds of interactions with students; they have made it clear that they see value in it,” he says. “Next term, we are introducing humanitarian settings with projects in Yemen.”
“As the course evolves, we want to experiment with structures that make it possible for students to continue to pursue their designs beyond the course. There are lots of interesting things to come.”
Student team studies human genetics in microgravity
The members of team TelOmG, from left to right, are Erin Richardson (EngSci Year 4), Anthony Piro, Miranda Badovinac in the top row; Taylor Peters, Dunja Matic (both EngSci Year 4), Luca Castelletto (EngSci Year 3) in the middle row; Samantha Aberdein, Emma Belhadfa (EngSci Year 3), Nicole Richardson, Krish Joshi, and MacKenzie Campbell (EngSci 2T0 + PEY, ChemE MASc candidate) in the bottom row. (Photos courtesy of team TelOmG)
A team of U of T students is preparing to see their research take off next week. They are among just six university teams from across Canada selected to conduct a study in a microgravity environment aboard the National Research Council Canada’s (NRC) Falcon-20 jet — the same plane used to train the Canadian Space Agency’s astronauts.
During the flight, scheduled for August 19, the students will investigate the effects of changes in gravity on the genetic regulation of human telomeres. Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes that are linked to genomic stability. Shortening of telomeres is associated with aging, while lengthening can be associated with cancer.
The idea for the experiment came to team lead Erin Richardson (EngSci Year 4) while reading NASA’s landmark Twins Study, an investigation of spaceflight’s effects on the human body. The study examined astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year in space, and his twin brother Mark who remained earthbound, and found Scott’s telomeres unexpectedly grew longer during his space flight. They returned to normal shortly after his return to Earth. In contrast, his twin’s telomeres remained stable during the same period.
“Our experiment investigates whether this increase in telomere length was due to reduced gravity or some other factor, such as increased radiation or stress during the spaceflight,” says Richardson.
Flying parabolic manoeuvres on the NRC’s Falcon 20 will allow the team to isolate microgravity from the other factors present on the International Space Station. However, while Scott Kelly spent months in space, the experiment will only undergo five periods of 20 seconds of microgravity each.
The students had to devise a way to test whether telomeres are affected by microgravity in under 20 seconds. “Telomere length won’t change that fast,” says Richardson. “The key was to focus on the transcription of the genes that control them. Previous studies found transcriptomes changed significantly within 20 seconds of altered gravity.”
Richardson has built her team with students from EngSci’s aerospace and biomedical systems majors and the life sciences: MacKenzie Campbell(EngSci 2T0 + PEY, ChemE MASc candidate), Dunja Matic, Taylor Peters (both EngSci Year 4), Emma Belhadfa, Luca Castelletto (both EngSci Year 3), physiology master’s student Anthony Piro, Year 3 life sciences student Miranda Badovinac, and Grade 12 students Samantha Aberdein, Krish Joshi, and Nicole Richardson.
The aerospace engineering team members focused on designing and building the physical apparatus while biomedical systems and life science students designed and tested the experiment’s scientific methods.
“The team brought together students with different areas of expertise, several age groups, and diverse mentors. One of the beautiful things that happens when you bring together people with so many different backgrounds is the ingenuity in the questions they ask each other,” says Professor Rodrigo Fernandez-Gonzalez (BME), chair of EngSci’s biomedical systems major. “Those questions often challenge dogmas and assumptions, and can ultimately lead to amazing discoveries.”
To test their hypothesis that microgravity contributes to changes in gene transcription related to telomeres, the students will “freeze cells in time” by preserving their nucleic acids before and after each short period of microgravity. They will analyze the nucleic acids after the flight for changes in the expression levels of genes that regulate telomeres.
The experiment’s apparatus consists of a syringe filled with a stabilization solution and connected to a series of chambers containing live cells. The electronic control system will inject the solution into the correct chamber when manually triggered by the students on board the flight just before and after each period of microgravity. Some samples are frozen before any periods of hypergravity or microgravity to control for environmental conditions on board the jet.
The TelOmG injection system. (Graphic courtesy of team TelOmG)
The entire experiment had to fit into a 50 cm cube and weigh no more than 45 kg, among other constraints. “Little things that you wouldn’t normally consider are much more challenging in microgravity,” says Castello, the team’s mechanical lead. “For example, we had to ensure everything is absolutely leak-proof and secured so that there’s no chance of small components or liquid floating around the plane’s cabin. Since we are dealing with cells, we had to create a sterile system while also minimizing bubbles that could interfere with our fluid pathways.”
Team TelOmG presented their proposal at the Johnson Space Centre Astronomical Society in June and has been invited to share their findings at the International Aeronautical Congress in Dubai in October.
Working in the midst of a pandemic presented additional challenges. Access to wet labs and lab safety training was restricted. “We’ve been blown away by the support we received from professors, researchers and private companies during this time,” says Belhadfa. “They helped us to get what we needed when public health restrictions created obstacles.”
Team members also had to work on components in isolation for many months. “Normally when we work in a team and something goes wrong during equipment testing, we have a good laugh together,” says Castelletto. “It’s a lot less funny when you’re all alone in your house.”
Planning and testing a complex experiment from start to finish has been an eye-opening journey for the team. “From our experiences in design courses like Praxis, we knew to expect things not to go as planned,” says Campbell. “We really learned to take a wide view of the project and lean on our project management skills.”
Team members Piro and Richardson will take part in the flight next week.
EngSci Praxis instructor wins international teaching award
EngSci’s first year engineering design courses, Praxis I and II, challenge Year 1 students to step outside their comfort zone to confront “real world” uncertainty and gain a deeper understanding of decision making.
“Over the many years that Professor Irish has taught in the Praxis courses, he has been a terrific support to our students in terms of their learning across the courses, in particular with regards to the development of their communication skills,” says EngSci’s Interim Chair, Professor Will Cluett.
From helping people with Parkinson’s disease to dance safely, to designing storage facilities for coffee beans, and even timing the throw in a knife throwing competition, this year’s Praxis design projects covered a diverse range of topics.
The Year 1 Praxis design course challenges EngSci students to apply their engineering know-how and improve the lived experience of a community within the Greater Toronto Area. Students explore the city in teams to find problems that can benefit from an engineering approach, and work with stakeholders to ensure their solutions match end-user needs. Members of the public are invited to see the results at the annual Praxis Showcase.