Engineering course challenges students to create tech solutions for COVID-19

‘When caught in a situation such as this, creatively and positively helping others is always an excellent endeavor.’

Written by Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

One University of Michigan student is working on a Google Chrome extension that will allow a person playing a game on the web to signal for help with a dangerous domestic situation. The creator, student Amelia “Mimi” Rave, is motivated by her own personal story of being a vulnerable young person.

Stefany Escobedo is considered an essential worker at Michigan Medicine where she helps keep technology humming as part of the Health Information & Technology Services team. Before COVID-19, she also was a hospital volunteer who was told she can’t serve during the crisis. She looks at her team’s store occupancy app as a different way to give back.

Alan Zhong and his team members are creating a tool they hope will further help flatten the curve of COVID-19 by encouraging people to share errand runs.

These are three of the six projects in a Michigan Engineering spring/summer course called Software against COVID-19, taught by David Chesney, the Toby Teorey Collegiate Lecturer in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The course normally is called Software for Accessibility. In the past, it has focused on technology solutions for persons with disabilities but Chesney decided to offer a special session from May through August.

“I thought that the students might have a great deal of angst right now about COVID-19, and all of the related uncertainties. And, there’s also the reality that many students had their plans change this summer at the last minute, such as canceled internships and an inability to travel,” Chesney said. “I hoped that a positive outlet for their anxiety—and for all of the unplanned available time—was working on projects towards the ‘greater good.’  When caught in a situation such as this, creatively and positively helping others is always an excellent endeavor.”

Chesney said it’s been interesting and challenging to develop an online approach to a course in which students work in groups to design, build and test their technology solutions. Although he has managed the technology well, he misses the live feedback and the back-and-forth the course usually inspires as students work through their own projects and give feedback to the other groups. He uses Zoom and Canvas to keep the group interactions going but without the in-person dynamic it has been a bit harder for him to “read” the students.

David Chesney talking with his students. Enlarge
David Chesney talking with his students. Photo: Joseph Xu/MichiganEngineering

This summer course is also missing the element of having a client to work with, but students like Alexandria “Allie” Bopp said in a sense she and other students in her group are the clients, as the project she proposed solves a problem for herself and others who are without usual outlets for community service.

“We get to build our app from the ground up and don’t have to worry about bureaucracy issues and meetings with 20,000 people,” said Bopp, a triple major in industrial and operations engineering, English and computer science. “This is our problem, which gives us more ownership of the whole experience.”

Bopp was very active in a student service-based organization. She believes her group’s Service Points mobile app can match students in student organizations with service opportunities in their communities.

“A lot of people are trying to find ways to serve in the community with all of the time they have now,” Bopp said, adding that she is among them. 

Rave, a computer science major in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, said the complexity of her project is a bit intimidating but she is excited for the challenge. Not only does she have to deal with the intricate technology, but she has to work through privacy issues when she designs CoMude. She calls the extension a “‘smokescreen’ in the form of a simple game intended to reach a young audience but a hidden agenda aimed toward all persons.”

Rave openly talks about her father who moved her away from her mother and siblings to live in an environment she described as not suitable for a young child. She is concerned that the isolation and constant contact that comes with quarantine and the desperation of unemployment, long-term or temporary, often breeds domestic violence.

“With exact features still in the design phase I cannot claim the following with absolute certainty, however, my goal is to provide a guarantee to the user that his or her identity is anonymous, and that help will come when needed,” she said. “I want my project to not only be a platform for communication in obviously dangerous or unhealthy situations, but to also ask the ‘right’ questions of vulnerable or unsuspecting victims in a space where they are protected. I believe there is a gap to fill here.” 

Escobedo, a computer engineering major, believes her team’s StoRoc web app will also uniquely fill a need as businesses move forward to reopen with some occupancy restrictions.

StoRoc would use cameras and a Raspberry Pi interface to monitor the number of people going in and out of a business and provide real-time information to anyone hoping to head to the location. If a safe capacity is 100 people, for example, a program would indicate when the maximum has been reached so the shoppers and businesses can manage crowds. In most cases currently, a store associate must stand at the door of a business counting heads, often while people wait in a line outside. The app would make information accessible to anyone planning to go to that business.

“I know this is a way we can help offset some of the bad things that are happening,” she said.

Zhong’s group has a similar interest to improve life with COVID-19 with the app Errand Share.

Everything is topsy-turvy right now, with people just trying to balance life,” he said. “COVID has touched every life for sure. It’s changed how we’re going to move forward as a society.”

 Which is why Errand Share will begin as a free app that appeals to a sense of altruism—that people will double up on running errands for one another to help their more compromised neighbors or to limit the number of people moving about a community to avoid exposure.

The team, which has worked through the design phase of their technological solution, is considering a token system that will help people identify trustworthy errand partners but also give the runners a reputation score, of sorts, should the developers eventually commercialize the app (think Uber or Lyft but for errand running instead of rides).

The course teaching assistant Yixian “Adina” Jia took the class in winter 2019. Her project focused on making children with autism more comfortable when they climb into the dental chair. Her team’s virtual reality project used Google Cardboard with a smartphone that exposed children to increasingly louder sounds as they moved about playing a game.

Jia said while the students in this online course don’t have the opportunity to see everyone’s product up close, as she and her classmates were able to do, they still have shown great interest in offering feedback and encouragement to one another through the learning management platform Canvas, where posted discussion boards have been lively.

“They are so, so motivated,” she said. “I do have high hopes for their apps. I feel they have a strong sense of purpose.”

Chesney said just as in the class focused on disability solutions, the COVID-19 projects presented by each of the 19 students were all very thoughtful, and it was hard to narrow to only six.

“It is always an embarrassment of riches when working with U-M College of Engineering and LSA students,” he said. “The students are always really creative and insightful in coming up with potential projects.”

The other projects include Live Safe, which takes a different approach to monitoring occupancy for business and organizations, and Civitas, a resource to connect management and residents in large living areas for help and support. 

The students had spring term to develop their ideas and get through an initial design phase. They will continue to work through the summer term that ends Aug. 21. If past classes are an example, some of the solutions could be completed and find users like Grace Simon and India West.