Senior undergraduate students from the electrical engineering undergraduate programs in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, spend two semesters demonstrating the culmination of their education through a capstone project every year. To graduate, the students must spend their final year putting the skills they’ve learned to use solving a real-world problem.

One of the capstone teams also wins the Joseph and Sandra Palais Senior Design Award. The award, established by Professor Emeritus Joseph Palais and his wife, Sandra, honors a high-achieving electrical engineering project judged by a panel of participants anonymous to the students. The winning team receives a celebratory lunch and a cash prize.

Dec. 1 marked the day for students competing for the Palais Senior Design Award, along with all of the 25 total teams graduating in the Fall 2023 semester, to show off the projects they’d worked hard planning and building.

Improving pickleball players’ swings

One of the electrical engineering innovations on display was a sleeve for a pickleball paddle to help players improve their swing. The sleeve, for which development was overseen by industry mentor Kevin Berk of PURE Pickleball, slides over the bottom of a pickleball paddle and senses a swing’s strength, shows a corresponding value on a numerical display.

The value is then correlated to a pickleball coach’s instructions to swing to a certain strength level. Players using the sleeve can easily determine if they are swinging too harshly or softly.

Additionally, the sleeve device collects data from the paddle’s movements that players can compare to ideal movement data to evaluate where they can improve. In addition to improving players’ performance, the team aims to reduce injuries through the device.

“The leading injury in pickleball is ‘pickleball elbow,’ or tennis elbow where there’s too much pressure,” says Kristine Park, one of the capstone team’s members. “Having the display prevents you from using this unnecessary force that can cause those injuries.”

Through the project, participants learned and used skills such as how to design a printed circuit board, software programming and 3D printing. The team members involved say the sleeve could be expanded to other sporting equipment as well such as baseball bats and tennis racquets, leaving the door open for future possibilities.

Finding the center of the galaxy 

While the pickleball paddle sleeve exemplified the use of electrical engineering for sports products, another team set their eyes on applying their skills to the stars.

Using a variety of odds and ends, including a vehicle axle as an antenna base, the team members built antennas to detect hydrogen emission frequencies in an effort to find the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Hydrogen emissions give off radio frequencies, and the antennas the team built detect and quantify them. A specific frequency range means the hydrogen emissions are particularly strong, and that direction leads to the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

While hobbyist astronomists often pay upwards of $200 for antennas to detect hydrogen emissions, the capstone team’s designs cost as little as $60 to build using a variety of parts, including a car axle as the base of one antenna.

Palais Senior Design Award winner looks to make computer use more accessible

Among those competing for the Palais Senior Design Award, ultimately the winning team was one who’d dubbed themselves Team Sticky.

The team took its name from the project the members completed: a low-cost Bluetooth-enabled joystick for quadriplegics to operate computers.

The experience of one team member, David Bangean, inspired the project. While an electrical engineering student six years ago, Bangean became paralyzed from the neck down.

Since then, he’s learned how to use tools to work on a computer, including a joystick that can be moved with the mouth to position a cursor arrow and interact with the interface. While the joystick is an existing technology, the team decided to build its model more compact than dominant designs for portability. By blowing into the joystick or sipping on it, a pressure sensor distinguishes one movement of air from another and uses distinct air movements for right and left clicks.

Additionally, most existing joysticks are expensive at a cost of many hundreds of dollars. Some can even cost more than $1,000, making them cost-prohibitive for individuals with low incomes.

“We intended it to be very affordable and accessible, because we think it’s very important for everyone to have access to the same technology,” says team member Diana Leon.

Looking to the future, the team members already see ways to improve the design for mass production. Team Sticky hopes to make their joysticks available to the public through collaboration with industry on a large scale.

Learning valuable career skills

For Casmir Anyanwu, a member of the pickleball paddle sleeve team, his experience with the capstone project was a valuable one for his career.

“It’s the most job-like experience I’ve had so far,” Anyanwu says.

He learned how to work with a mentor and a team in a high-pressure situation while improving his skills to retrieve and research information.

For Eric Hornburg, a member of the antenna-building team, the capstone project helped further his capabilities in his job working at General Atomics, which develops technology for aviation, energy, national defense and more.

“Most of us here have jobs already,” Hornburg says. “I’ve been working in tech and aviation for 20 years. I’m going to continue to increase my potential.”

Team Sticky used the experience to hone their communication and project management skills, taking advantage of Discord’s abilities to set up a variety of tasks and channels within their chat group in the platform.

Team member Larry Stephens found the experience insightful into how to work with others.

“I think this class is great to prepare you for after graduation,” Stephens says. “A lot of the time, you have to work on cross-disciplinary teams.”

He adds that he learned how to collaborate to work on both the hardware and software sides of a project, and he emphasized the importance of team members working well with one another to bring all the elements of an electronics project together.