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UW-Eau Claire – Barron County student teams win top prizes in Foxconn-sponsored competition

| Denise Olson

Two student teams from UW-Eau Claire – Barron County recently advanced to the finalist round of competition in the Foxconn Technology Group's Smart Cities – Smart Futures Competition, which was held Dec. 19 at Carroll University in Waukesha.

During the competition, students and faculty from throughout Wisconsin propose sustainability projects to improve and enhance living and working environments, manufacturing facilities or processes; and promote attractive streetscapes, transportation networks or living spaces. With one top-10 finish and one grand prize winner, it's clear that students at UW-Eau Claire – Barron County are receiving a top-notch education, preparing them well to tackle the problems facing our world today. 

The team earning a grand prize and a $5,500 award included team leader Haoyu Xu of Dalian, China, and team members Gabrielle Hull of Eau Claire; Yexuan Sun of Dalian, China; and Haiyuan Yu of Jinan, China. The project they created is called BEST (Bright Enhance Safety Traffic) Sign, a safety-enhanced traffic-sign system fitted with a multitude of safety functions to increase driver awareness and compliance, and reduce accidents. The main functions of the stop-sign prototype, powered by solar panels, include an automatic heat system for snowy weather, a night light, a traffic camera to monitor compliance and violations, a speed warning, oncoming traffic warnings and, most importantly, a real-time traffic monitoring system to track overall traffic at a given intersection. The technology would be applicable to any type of traffic sign. 

Xu, the team's lead student, was in charge of the overall direction of the project and presenting on behalf of the team. 

"I directed the major focus of the project," Xu said. "Designing a new idea and making it more useful and perfecting it was enjoyable, and it allowed me to think of every aspect of the project and choose the best way to approach it. I'm very thankful for Smart Cities – Smart Futures for giving us a chance to show our idea to others and for supporting new ideas from all the groups to make a better future for Wisconsin cities. It's an honor to be selected as the grand-prize finalist."  

The team that earned a top-10 finish among the finalists and a prize of $3,000 consists of team leader Kylie Van Dyke of Chippewa Falls; Sicheng Mo of Chengdu, China; Yuchi Dong of Amshan, China; Linze Li of Henan, China; and Jinghao Zhou of Chongqing, China. Their project featured the proposal of an E-Home, the retrofitting of an existing Wisconsin home with eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient features.

"E-Home is a hybrid system of 95% solar energy and 5% wind energy with a built-in heating system intended to make hybrid systems more applicable for locations that experience colder weather like Wisconsin," Van Dyke said. "From predicting the long-term fiscal and environmental impacts, we believe this E-Home will save the user at least $30,000-$40,000 over the next 30 years, the lifespan of the system, not including the profits gained from selling excess energy to the main power grid system." 

Both student teams were mentored by Dr. Wufeng Tian, assistant professor of mathematics at UW-Eau Claire – Barron County. 

Luke Kempen, director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at UW-Eau Claire, worked with the students through the SBDC’s UW-Eau Claire – Barron County office in Rice Lake. Kempen assisted the students in working through a Business Model Canvas for their ideas, which helped them identify new potential revenue streams and other customer benefits of their idea.  

“While the students started with a solid smart-city idea, we had the students use one of our business startup tools, the Business Model Canvas, as a framework for sparking deeper discussion and thought on their idea. This helped the groups generate many new potential revenue streams and benefits, which the students incorporated into their presentation.”     

Li, a first-year student, worked on the E-Home project and was a key contributor to the solution for snow removal on the solar panels.  

"Yuchi and I had many ideas for cleaning the snow on the solar panel, including heated glass, a fan system to blow the snow, and the squeegee to push the snow from the solar panel to the ground. We finally decided to use the third option which will clean snow quietly and efficiently. Our analysis showed that the heated glass would waste a lot of power to heat up the window, and the blower would make a lot of noise," Li explained. "To further improve this method, we set up a snow-depth detector so the squeegee won't still clean the snow when there is not a lot of snow on the solar panel. In addition, a remote controller can control the cleaning system and manually clean a screen anywhere necessary." 

Li added a personal thanks to Tian for his mentorship and support through this process. 

"We really owe gratitude to Dr. Tian, because without his help and support, neither team could have done so well in this competition," Li said.

"I heard about this competition from the Office of Research and Sponsored Program at UW-Eau Claire, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to share and market our ideas about our products to improve road safety, promote safe driving habits and find sustainable energy solutions for homeowners in Wisconsin," Tian said. "The E-Home submission was a continued work from a previous research project that won a national award in the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges Student Research League." See related story.

Tian went on to say that finishing so strongly in the Smart Cities – Smart Futures Competition has encouraged these students to move on to the next stage of development, finding a business partner and potential future marketing channels. The smart-sign  team has partnered with WiSys to protect the associated intellectual property of the project, and discussions are ongoing for product development, drafting the patent application and the license of the technology.

WiSys is a nonprofit supporting organization of the UW System, serving as the dedicated technology transfer office for 11 universities. Tian's January talks with WiSis for assistance in moving forward with the project concluded that next steps for the sign development will require collaboration with another campus. 

"WiSys team has met and discussed various paths forward, and a partnership with the UW-Platteville Engineering Senior Design program seemed like a great fit," Tian said. "The idea is that these groups of students will create the first working mechanical and electrical designs of the elements of the project."

Brittany Nielsen, campus director for UW-Eau Claire – Barron County, is pleased to be able to share with current and prospective students just how successful the students are on the Rice Lake campus, doing high-level undergraduate research and other experiential learning that will serve them well in all future career or academic pursuits.

"I'm extremely proud that we have a campus and an environment that fosters collaboration between faculty, staff and students," Nielsen said. "At UW-Eau Claire – Barron County, we strive to help our students engage in projects, research opportunities and competitions like Smart Cities – Smart Futures. These experiences help students to gain valuable insight into research, design, communication, along with critical thinking skills that will help them in their future endeavors. With the help of Dr. Wufeng Tian, our students have the opportunity to be challenged and to engage with students across the nation while showcasing the success and intellectual innovations sparked by their education at UW-Eau Claire – Barron County."

Photo caption: Dr. Wufeng Tian (second from left) and Haoyu Xu (third from left), along with FoxConn representatives at the Smart Cities – Smart Futures Competition. Xu is the student representative for the grand-prize team that created the BEST Sign project.