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UMSL/WashU Joint Program seniors learn to apply mechanical engineering to biology

Engineering students often say they want more real-world, hands-on experience. A group of 23 senior mechanical engineering students in the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University in St. Louis Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program got both through their senior capstone design projects done in new partnership with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The Passive Solar Tracker (above) is a tracking system that allows the Danforth Center’s PheNode, a farm-ready, solar-powered environmental sensor and phenotyping station for crops, to follow the sun for a longer period of time.

The partnership, the first of its kind for the Joint Program, allowed the 23 students in the course to team with four researchers at the Danforth Center who needed help designing projects to make their research run more smoothly. The Danforth Center mentors invited students to the facility to tour their labs to get a first-hand look at how the labs work and how the projects would benefit their research.

Researchers at the Danforth Center proposed 17 projects, and each of the eight teams chose their favorite. Once the students received their assignments from course instructor Mark Jakiela, the Lee Hunter Professor of Mechanical Design and program director for the Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, they had six weeks to complete their design and prototype. Their budgets for the projects were $200-$300 each.

Veena Veena, director of the Plant Tissue Culture and Transformation Facility at the Danforth Center, mentored two teams.

“We are all biologists here, and having this collaborative effort that puts two different types of minds and perspectives together has been very beneficial for us,” she said.

Jody O’Sullivan, dean of the Joint Program and the Samuel Sachs Professor of Electrical Engineering at WashU, said it was the first time the program has worked with a research organization for the senior capstone design projects.

“It’s a wonderful example of how we can collaborate across two universities and Danforth Plant Science Center,” O’Sullivan said. “We often work with companies or other faculty members. This is really unique in that it’s working with a leading research center that is distinct from the university and apply some of the talent from our students to meet those projects.”

Among those projects were the Passive Solar Tracker, which is a tracking system that allows the Danforth Center’s PheNode, a farm-ready, solar-powered environmental sensor and phenotyping station for crops, to follow the sun for a longer period of time. Team members James Eimer, Robert Stretch and Pat Kraus developed a device prototype for about $200 that uses the sun’s heat to operate the tracker.

“The mentors were really open to our ideas,” Stretch said. “They were willing to meet with us and were hands-on without being overbearing. They seemed genuinely excited to work with us.”

Eimer and Kraus completed their degrees in six years, and Stretch completed his in five and a half, all while working full time.

Another team developed a device that would wrap petri dishes with plastic wrap to save researchers the manual labor.

Isaac Asaro, John Hahler and Wade Twellman developed a low-voltage media plate wrap using a simple electrical box, a hockey puck, a constant pressure switch, and some custom-fabricated pieces to make their prototype, which wrapped a petri dish in less than 15 seconds.

“It was nice to do a project that meant something,” said Twellman, who, along with his teammates, completed the Joint Program in seven years.

Asaro said the scope of the project was fun.

“We came out to meet with Veena, and she gave us a tour of the facility here,” Asaro said. “We could see where our device would go and how we needed to do it.

John Jensen, who was on a team that created a seed cross-breeze distance tester, said one challenge to the project was that the team met only once a week.

“Unfortunately, that just leads to a lot of late nights,” he said. “For going into real work, an experience like this is good to show you what happens at a place of business.”

The University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University in St. Louis Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program combines strengths of the two universities to provide a flexible engineering program for the St. Louis community. Students in the joint program take the pre-engineering core of mathematics, physics, chemistry, humanities, social sciences, and some engineering subjects through the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Students take upper-level engineering courses and laboratories at Washington University in the evenings.


The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 94 tenured/tenure-track and 28 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.