Undergrad Innovation Shines at MTU Design Expo

A MIG robot prints a metal part as sparks fly from the tip of the welder on a black background.
A MIG robot prints a metal part as sparks fly from the tip of the welder on a black background.
A welding robot prints a steel part in a project sponsored by Mercury Marine — one of hundreds of interdisciplinary industry collaborations that showcase student ingenuity and innovation at Design Expo 2021 (Image Credit: Mike Groeneveld).

Michigan Tech's high-profile undergraduate innovation showcase is virtual for the second year — and reaching a broader audience.

Skis for paraplegic athletes. Capturing energy from underwater tides to power submersible vehicles. An electronic tongue. A landing system for a possible future mission to the Psyche asteroid. What do they all have in common? They're among the hundreds of life-improving undergraduate student projects on display at Michigan Technological University’s 21st annual — and second fully virtual — Design Expo 2021 on Thursday, April 15. 

About the Competitors and Sponsors

Michigan Tech’s Senior Design program is known as a first job rather than a last class because  senior-level project teams address practical, open-ended design challenges. In Enterprise, larger interdisciplinary organizations of first-year through graduate-level students work with clients using relevant business and industry models to create products, deliver services and pioneer solutions. There’s always a mind-boggling array of projects on hand at Design Expo — and the research work never fails to impress audiences and judges.

Design Expo 2021 includes 40 Senior Design teams, 23 Enterprise teams, more than a thousand students, 10 event sponsors, 88 team sponsors, 80-plus judges and hundreds of guests.

Instead of gathering on campus, a panel of judges will critique videos of team projects, solutions and results virtually. Judges include distinguished corporate representatives, alumni, community members and Michigan Tech faculty and staff.

Transforming a large annual showcase of student projects into a virtual event that remains educational, meaningful and authentic was no easy task.

Bigger, Better Virtual Expo

“Finding a collection of platforms that fit all of the needs of Design Expo was the most challenging part,” said Enterprise Program coordinator Bre Tucker, who leads the event planning team. “We wanted Design Expo to be user-friendly, but also engaging and helpful as students connect with judges and the guests.”

After looking at a variety of options, Tucker settled on Gatherly, a relatively new virtual platform developed by students at Georgia Tech that features spatial video chats. 

“The Gatherly platform makes it easy to have real-time conversations, share information via screen share and to move around freely as one would do during an in-person event,” said Tucker. “We're excited that we can hold live, real-time discussions between Michigan Tech students and the Design Expo audience.”

a woman smiles at the camera wearing a lace top with a head and shoulders shot and a blue background
As a student at Tech, Tucker worked as an ExSel mentor, writing coach and resident assistant, and studied abroad at London Metropolitan University.

Tucker is no stranger to Michigan Tech or planning large events. The 2013 alumna with a BA in Communication, Culture and Media went on to earn a master’s in student affairs in higher education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania before returning to Michigan Tech to work as a student engagement coordinator at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Tucker joined MTU’s Pavlis Honors College a year later to help students gain real-world experience through industry-sponsored, hands-on projects.

Tucker previously headed up Parade of Nations, the region’s largest, long-running multicultural festival, and is currently on the organizing team for the Husky Hustle 5K, which takes place each summer during Alumni Reunion

In March 2020, Tucker was fully immersed in the Design Expo planning process when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. With Tucker in the lead, organizers successfully moved Design Expo online with only a month's time to adjust. “Never in a million years would I have thought the world would shift the way it did,” she said.

"This year, for the second virtual Design Expo, we knew we wanted to go bigger."Bre Tucker, Enterprise Program coordinator

“As much as we hoped, we knew going into the 2020-2021 academic year that we wouldn't be able to come back to an in-person Design Expo. So instead we searched for ways to keep the great energy of our usual in-person event,” she said. “We wanted to generate some sense of normalcy and excitement for hands-on learning and student projects, and make sure that we keep people safe.”

Leveraging virtual advantage was key to her strategy. “The best thing about Design Expo 2021 is a new ability to reach out to a broader audience,” said Tucker. “Here in Houghton we never know what the weather will be like in April, and getting to Michigan Tech can be a trek. With Design Expo being virtual, we've seen participation from across the United States and across the world. We love having alumni and supporters engage with Design Expo above and beyond our usual reach.”

“With each hour of time and energy put into this year's Design Expo, I feel reassured by students and community members who are excited that we didn't give up on hosting this event. It can be a lot of work, but our students work extremely hard throughout the year. It is exciting to learn about what they are doing and how they plan to change the world with their research, inventions and discoveries.”

Test equipment in a black box on a snow-covered dock next to the ice in winter with yellow cords and red and black plugs
From under-ice sensing to algorithm camouflage, Huskies didn't let extraordinary challenges — including a pandemic — stop them from conducting research. Design Expo organizers proved equally tenacious. (Image Credit: Michigan Tech SENSE)

Judging Started, Event Goes Live Thursday

Earlier this week, judges logged in to RocketJudge.com to view team videos in advance. At 11 a.m. Thursday, Design Expo’s opening ceremony takes place on Zoom and team project videos become available for public viewing. At 11:30 a.m., everyone who pre-registered for Gatherly will be able to join the virtual event to meet with students and talk to them about their projects. At 3 p.m, the Design Expo awards ceremony is open to all on Zoom. Check out the details in the Design Expo schedule.

Expo Sponsors and Partners Broaden Support

Design Expo wouldn’t be possible without generous industry and University sponsorship. This year, project and program supporters made a strategic investment in Michigan Tech’s educational mission, increasing external funding. On average, close to 90 percent of the projects were funded by external sponsors, up significantly from last year.

For the 10th consecutive year, ITC Holdings is a directing partner. Collaborating partners include OHM, EverSmile, Gateway Foundation, Higher Ground Gear, Husky Innovate, Michigan Tech Office of Innovation and Commercialization, Miracle Recreation, Plexus and Success by Design. Rock Central is an innovating partner.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.