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ASU students solve real-world problems in EPICS program

April 27, 2012

Would you like to be able to send timely medical data such as your blood pressure and blood sugar to your doctor from your own home? There’s an app for that.

How about finding out where a live ballet performance is happening nearby? Incredibly, there will soon be a smart phone app for that, too.

Thanks to these innovations and others from Arizona State University students, there’s now a network to collect unused food and deliver it to the hungry in Phoenix, a sustainable way to keep trash out of the Rio Salado Habitat Area, a plan to put bike rental hubs in three light rail stations and a clean water system at a women's college in Bangladesh.

There’s even a hot spot wiki used by millions of birdwatchers worldwide to find the best bird-watching sites.

Undergraduates enrolled in a series of ASU social entrepreneurship courses called EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) solve real-world problems, working with charities, schools, government agencies and other nonprofit organizations. They often go way beyond the requirements of the courses, putting in hundreds of hours, entering national and international competitions, sometimes launching new companies or nonprofit organizations.

DocTalk, the smart phone app for making key medical data accessible to both patients and doctors, came about after a local physician asked a student team for a way to gather more accurate, timely information from his patients. The team is now developing a limited liability company to market the device.

Connecting the public with live ballet performances came about after Ballet Arizona asked engineering students to help them improve their outreach through technology. Working in tandem with students at Xavier High School in Phoenix, eight ASU teams are developing videos and kits to send to rural high schools, to make ballet available throughout the state.

FlashFood, the student team that developed a real-time food recovery and distribution system, is the latest EPICS team to make a splash with their technology, winning first place in the Microsoft Imagine Cup in Seattle last week. They earned $18,000 to support their venture to help local food providers – restaurants, caterers, hotels – prevent food waste and deliver excess fresh food to people in need.

Six ASU students, representing three colleges, are headed to Sydney, Australia in July to represent the United States in the world Microsoft Imagine Cup, with entrants from over 70 countries.

Using web applications and smart phones, the food providers can send a text alert to a network of community organizations and schools, and teams of students will pick up and deliver the food at night or on weekends, when most charity food banks are closed.

Though funding is always a problem, EPICS students have won $70,000 in awards this school year to bankroll their projects. G3Box, the team that converts abandoned steel shipping containers into medical-grade clinics for developing countries, won College Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 from Entrepreneur magazine.

Started at ASU in 2009 as part of a national program, EPICS at ASU has grown from one class and 35 students to eight classes and 175 students this spring semester. Based in the Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering, it is open to all undergraduates in any major, and some of the most successful teams have represented multiple colleges.

“We tap into students’ creative ideas and energy, focusing on innovation,” says Richard Filley, director of EPICS. “We want students to realize their ideas matter and they can make a difference. They can solve pressing social challenges and problems right now, and not have to wait until after graduation.”

Written by Sarah Auffret