Student Stories

Second STEM Expo inspires future scientists, engineers



Acker Scholar, Freddy Cazares, teaches middle school students about the respiratory system and helps them build their own lung model using a plastic bottle, Play-Doh, and balloons.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – For a day, Western New York high school students stepped into the shoes of engineers and scientists at the 2016 University at Buffalo STEM Expo.

Using K’nex pieces and a scoring budget sheet, students designed bridges that were tested to see how much weight they could withstand and how much profit they made based on their design.

The second annual event drew nearly 100 students from Buffalo Public Schools and the Western New York area to the UB campus where they built hovercrafts, competed in bridge building competitions and made their own slime.

Held on April 23rd, the program is sponsored by the UB Science and Technology Enrichment Program (STEP); the UB Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Programs (UB-STEM); and the Daniel Acker Scholars Program.

The program aims to introduce underrepresented and low-income students of color to STEM fields and stir interest in pursuing the fields in college.

Throughout the day, students also created their own model of the human lung, crafted flood alarm systems, learned how to write their names in binary code, among other STEM activities. The activities were led by undergraduate students in the UB-STEM and Acker programs.


Acker Scholar, Clinton Oka, teaching students about binary coding using pony beads.

“The STEM Expo is important because it gives us college students the opportunity to connect and reach out to younger students who have their whole future ahead of them,” says Clinton Oka, a sophomore computer science major.

“Bridging the gap between adulthood and youth, we students have the ability to view things at a level closer to the kids, compared to some adult figures and teachers. Exposing the students to the fun aspects of being a STEM major will help their academics because their interest for those subjects will be greater.”



Engineers use electricity to peek inside bridge cables for corrosion

Engineers use electricity to peek inside bridge cables for corrosion

Bridge closed for repair work


Originally Published December 5, 2013 in the UB Reporter

Tresor Mavinga
“We need to be as accurate as possible to save money, time and lives.”

Tresor Mavinga, civil engineering and mathematics major

Rust is a civil engineer’s nightmare.

Across the United States, more than 200 million trips are taken daily across bridges rated structurally deficient or in need of significant maintenance and yearly inspection. One major culprit: corrosion of reinforcing steel.

Now, however, UB researchers believe they can detect corrosion before the damage becomes severe by sending a jolt of electricity between opposite ends of steel cables. An inconsistency in the charge would alert them that the cable is suffering from corrosion and the bridge is in danger of falling.

“The No. 1 priority of all civil engineers is the safety of the public,” says Tresor Mavinga, a UB senior civil engineering and mathematics major involved in the research. “Corrosion can affect any structure, not just bridges, and we don’t want that to happen. We need to be as accurate as possible to save money, time and lives.”

Led by Salvatore Salamone, assistant professor of civil engineering, Mavinga and Alireza Farhidzadeh, a civil engineering graduate student, embedded piezoelectric transducers — devices that convert a signal from one form of energy to another — onto each end of a wire.

They then fired one volt of electricity through the metal using ultrasonic-guided waves, which can travel a long distance with little loss in energy, while monitoring the charge received at each end. The experiment was repeated with the same wire after it was rusted with a saltwater mixture. Because the cables are corroded, most of the energy from the electrical charge will be lost during the transfer between transducers.

Since the sensors and transducers are permanently attached to the cable, engineers can test the wires remotely off-site.

The new method of testing could do away with time-consuming and expensive visual tests, which often rely on drilling through concrete to inspect the cables or spotting cracks in the concrete caused by increased stress on the weakened wires.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, corrosion problems have increased significantly over the past three decades and are likely to continue. The increase is in part due to the rising use of road de-icing salts, which are extremely corrosive to the protective films on metals.

Corrosion test

The steel cable tendon, which is found in most bridges, is suspended above a saltwater mixture with ultrasonic sensors attached at both ends for corrosion monitoring. Photo: Marcene Robinson

The steel cable tendon, which is found in most bridges, is suspended above a saltwater mixture with ultrasonic sensors attached at both ends for corrosion monitoring. Photo: Marcene Robinson

Improved testing is a needed step toward improvement of American infrastructure.

U.S. bridges were graded a C-plus by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. And of the more than 17,000 bridges in New York, 12.5 percent are structurally deficient and 27 percent are considered functionally obsolete.

The report adds that one out of nine of the nation’s bridges is structurally deficient and that more than 30 percent of bridges have exceeded their 50-year design life; the average age of the nation’s bridges is currently 42 years.

Folks ramping up experiential learning

Folks ramping up experiential learning

Liesl Folks with Michael Hooven

UB Engineering Dean Liesl Folks is drawing on the shadowing experiences of UB alumnus Michael Hooven (right) to increase undergraduates’ opportunities for real-world learning.


First Published August 9, 2013 in the UB Reporter

Christine DiGiacomo is rare among college graduates. Not only did she secure a job before earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from UB in May, but her hunt ended before Thanksgiving.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without the experiences I had,” she says from Houston, where she has begun a two-year management-training program at Cameron, a leading provider of flow equipment products, systems and services to worldwide oil, gas and process industries.

The company accepted 35 engineering graduates into its Global Rotational Development Program (GRDP) this year after visiting 15 campuses across the country. Nicole Cormier, leadership development program coordinator for the GRDP Operations and Supply Chain program, says that those selected display motivation, good communication skills, a knack for learning rapidly, an ability to deliver results and meet customer expectations, and an aptitude for coping with pressures and setbacks.

DiGiacomo believes two features of her resume had the greatest impact: a full-time summer internship in the process engineering department at MOD-PAC in Buffalo, and a Six Sigma Black Belt certification earned after completing a two-semester project at Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials in Wheatfield.

Liesl Folks, dean of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), wants more success stories like DiGiacomo’s. At the very least, she aims to offer students a greater understanding of their options as they decide on their post-UB careers and increase their preparedness for entering the engineering profession.

Folks is instituting an initiative to bring more “experiential learning” to undergraduate engineers. A new coordinator has been appointed to manage a “smorgasbord” of outside-of-the-classroom activities, including engagements of just a few hours to longer-term commitments like internships. It will roll out to graduate students as there is interest.

Interaction with industry varies among the seven SEAS departments. For example, industrial engineers complete a field project as part of their senior capstone internship. Other departments do not have such requirements, but undergraduates find opportunities on their own with the help of faculty or through centers like UB TCIE, whose student Black Belt program enabled DiGiacomo’s industry-recognized certification.

An estimated 60 percent of SEAS undergraduates obtain experiential learning of some form. Folks’ objective is to raise it to 95 percent in three years.

Fueling that effort is President Satish Tripathi’s mandate that the university engage more strongly with the external community, as well as Folks’ mentoring experiences.

“For industry, there’s a huge advantage to being able to ‘try before you buy’ through internships that often lead to job offers,” says Folks, who was recognized this spring with the AVS Excellence in Leadership award for mentoring science and engineering students during years spent in industry.

Architectural and engineering consulting firm Wendel regularly employs full-time summer interns across disciplines—including architects and civil, mechanical and electrical engineers—at its Amherst headquarters. Employment Recruitment Specialist Carla Hart estimates that eight of every 10 interns are from UB. The university’s programs, maturity of students and convenient location make for an ideal fit.

“We groom the person in hopes there will be a full-time job for them,” Hart says, noting that in addition to serving on meaningful projects, students typically undergo a training program. They are asked about their learning interests and, many times, request soft skills-related topics, such as interview techniques or how to bridge generational gaps.

“It’s nice for us to be able to train and start to mold them, in hopes that they will be a future Wendel employee,” Hart adds.

Some students stay to work through the fall. Others return for another summer. Several have been hired.

Folks also sees value in short-term commitments, especially when considering UB’s “Finish in 4” initiative. That program pledges to provide entering freshmen with the academic resources needed to graduate in four years, but requires students to adhere to tight schedules, which may preclude internships.

She envisions incorporating a European work-study model into UB’s new Winter Session that debuts in January. Students would spend two or three weeks at a company, working with a multidisciplinary team to help solve a problem.

Benefits also have surfaced from half-day “shadowing” experiences. When UB alumnus Michael Hooven began connecting students with companies, he didn’t foresee the impact it would have. Three engineering students who completed their sophomore year this May are working in paid summer internships in their fields, following mentoring from Hooven.

Hooven’s volunteer involvement developed organically after he contributed to a UB Alumni Association career event. Since September, he has aligned multiple opportunities for a handful of students from the engineering, business and communication disciplines. Companies agree to host a small number of students for two to four hours. The students sit alongside one or more employees to discover workplace responsibilities and roles.

As he began making phone calls on behalf of civil, structural and environmental engineering (CSEE) students, he says he expected to hear, “No, we’re too busy.” However, “it’s been quite the contrary. I think these companies realize that these are the civil engineers of the future,” Hooven says.

Companies hope the few invested hours will better prepare students for the workforce. Employers say that shadowing provides a glimpse into what a company does and highlights skills, such as writing, communication and working on a team, that are necessary in addition to foundational theory.

Hooven’s experiences and Wendel’s track record are examples of the strong, local business support for engaging UB students. Folks’ goals are to expand the regional base while leveraging the 28,000 engineering alumni worldwide and establishing relationships with Canadian-based companies.

“There’s pretty limited diversity here, so they’re not seeing how diverse the real world is,” Folks says, explaining that exposure to cultural and ethnic diversity is important for a largely local undergraduate base. “And an understanding of global trade is something that most Western New York students are not all that familiar with.”

Andrew Whittaker, CSEE department chair, agrees that industry experiences are a necessary component of the academic program.

“Too often, I think our students go to an interview and they answer questions, but they don’t ask a lot of questions,” he says. “The interview is meant to be a dialogue and an internship helps you craft the questions that you need to ask.”

He compares classroom learning to a monologue, in that information is consumed and feedback is given via homework and exams. Internships are more like a conversation.

“Once you move into the real world, you find that you work with many different types of professionals,” Whittaker says. “It opens the eyes of many of our students—that civil engineering is not particularly linear and work is influenced by many.”

DiGiacomo’s introduction at MOD-PAC taught her that not all issues are cut and dry. Eight months at Saint-Gobain reinforced the value of workforce support, when she needed to gain operator buy-in for optimizing a set of systems and increasing throughput.

“When I told them what I was doing, they said, ‘Good luck with that. We’ve been trying to do that for years,’” she says.

Guidance from company liaisons and a program mentor steered DiGiacomo to get involved in shop floor operations, resulting in greater cooperation and meeting her goals.

“It’s a game-changing experience for students to get inside an organization and see how it functions,” Folks says. “I think it also does a lot to round them out professionally so that, when they graduate, they look like potential employees.”

Hooven can attest. After each shadowing session, he notices growing confidence.

“I think this has really given students a step up, just through interaction with professionals in the workplace,” he says. “I have seen the development in them.”

Monster in the Great Lakes: UB students study plastic pollution

Monster in the Great Lakes: UB students study plastic pollution

Andrea Martinez, an electrical engineering student at UB, holds the first sample taken on Sea Dragon for the week.



Published August 1, 2013 in the UB Reporter

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Andrea Martinez opts for the can of juice instead of the plastic bottle at the store, it’s apparent that the research she performed on pollution in Lake Ontario has had an effect on her.

She refuses to eat on Styrofoam plates, and whenever a cashier gives her a plastic bag, her head fills with images of fish with more plastic in their stomachs than food. The pollution of plastics in the water is a problem that Martinez, a senior electrical engineering major at UB, simply couldn’t ignore.

Along with Shayne McKay, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Paul Glenn, a senior mathematical physics major, Martinez participated in what organizers say is the first survey for plastic pollution within the open waters of the Great Lakes.

Led by Sherri Mason, associate professor of chemistry at Fredonia State University, the students searched for the concentration and types of plastics in the water, and the effects the materials have on the ecosystem.

The study was part of a seven-day long Environmental Research and Communications Course provided by Pangaea Explorations, an organization dedicated to marine exploration, education and conservation.

Samples are collected using a manta-trawl, which receives its name for its resemblance to a manta ray when in the water. The trawl uses two metal fins to remain steady above the water surface, and a mouth to funnel water into a net that catches material on the micron scale.

From Montreal, Quebec, the group boarded the Sea Dragon, the program’s 72-foot yacht, and journeyed down the St. Lawrence Seaway, through the Thousand Islands — a chain of 1,864 islands that straddle the Canada-U.S. border — and across Lake Ontario to Toronto, Ontario.

The UB students lived on the boat for seven days among a crew of 11, learning sailing terminology and deckhand duties, such as how to raise a sail. With McKay at the helm, the Sea Dragon even reached its top speed for the week at 9.7 knots.

Although none of the students had sailing experience prior to cast off, each received an International Certificate of Competency from International Yacht Training Worldwide by the end of the course, certifying them as qualified deck hands.

Their participation in the course was funded through the SUNY Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), a program dedicated to increasing the number of students from historically underrepresented groups completing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Captain Eric Ross teaches a sailing class

“The trip aboard the Sea Dragon provided our students with a once in a lifetime experience to build character, broaden their knowledge about the environment and gain a global perspective,” says Letitia Thomas, assistant vice provost and director of UB STEM programs. “We know our students are brilliant engineers and scientists, but we also want them to develop as people and become the next generation of leaders within STEM and beyond.”

The rare opportunity allowed the UB students to witness firsthand the shocking effects of pollution in the water.

“We saw people swimming just a hundred feet away from the facial scrubs and Styrofoam balls we picked out of the water, on the surface,” says Martinez. “I don’t know about you, but when I swim, I swallow some of the water. I don’t want to swallow some of the things I pulled out of that water.”

On Sugar Island, one of the Thousand Islands, the group sampled water from two locations that were 20 feet apart, one adjacent to an area of land inhabited by people and the other not. Despite the short distance, they found drastic differences between each site’s water pH, temperature, quality and wildlife.

While not naïve enough to believe that people don’t litter, Martinez couldn’t understand why there was so much plastic in the water when the material is recyclable.

She soon learned that plastic is not biodegradable. The material is, however, subject to photodegradation, and breaks into smaller pieces due to light from the Sun.

Microplastics, defined as smaller than 5 millimeters, are not only toxic, but can be mistaken for food by birds or fish. Eating the small bits of debris can lead the animals to believe they are full, when in reality they are malnourished or dehydrated. It could even cause them to suffocate.

And because most animals can’t digest plastic, garbage eaten by fish or birds remains in their bodies long after the animal dies. People could also catch and consume animals filled with the plastics.

The students realize they can’t avoid plastic altogether, but each has worked to lower their use of material.

Glenn replaced his plastic Tupperware sets with tin containers, which are more easily recycled than plastic. McKay no longer drinks bottled beverages, and asks for paper bags at stores. And Martinez has drafted a letter asking her employer to offer alternatives to the plastic cups and Styrofoam plates used in the food lounge.

“We’re all humans and we share this Earth; it’s everyone’s problem,” says Martinez. “People should view this issue as ‘something I could help solve,’ as opposed to, ‘something that’s too big for me.’”

The Day the World Tilted – by Andrea Martinez

Originally posted on the Sea Dragon Ship’s Blog

The Day the World Tilted- by Andrea Martinez (UB STEM/LSAMP Scholar).

Editor’s Note: Andy joined us last week for our Freshwater Research and Scientific Communications course. In the rush of the final days of the course, she didn’t have a chance to complete her blog in time to be published during her sail. However, I thought she wrote so beautifully about her experience that I would add it to our One Water Story now, so that you can see through her eyes what life on Sea Dragon is truly about.

Blogger of the Day-Andrea Martinez-Electrical Engineering Student, SUNY Buffalo University.

Sea Dragon-finally in her element!

My name is Andrea Martinez (Andy for short) and this is the day the world tilted.

I am a student at the University at Buffalo, a SUNY school, and am going into my fourth year as an Electrical Engineering student.  I currently play rugby and do research into transient effects on the lifetime properties of electrical systems.  Seems pretty distant from plastics in the great lakes, right?  Wrong.  It doesn’t matter who you are, this matters to you and you should be doing all you can to help.  Plastics in the water, as I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about on this journey, affect the fish, which upwards of 75% of people eat, the water, which we all drink, birds and more.

I came on this trip to experience something different from my normal day to day activities and my world and views on it have been shifted thanks to the brilliant minds and leaders I have the pleasure of sailing with.

Life on a boat is different than land in more ways than I initially imagined.  There is no place to buy food on the water so every meal has to be planned in advance, this seems obvious and it is, but I’m not used to knowing every meal a week in advance.  Most nights I debate what I’ll eat for dinner until I actually start cooking.  I expected the close quarters and I was used to that as the oldest of five children, seven in total, in my household.  The boat sways, even when anchored, but that took less than a day to get used to.

The biggest thing for me is the fact that there isn’t a lot of space on the boat.  It’s 72 ft long, bow to stern and maybe 15 feet at the widest point.  I’m an athlete; I was the MVP of my high school track team three years running and went to California this year with my rugby team where we placed fourth in the country.  I like to run and jump and play so it took about a day for me to go stir crazy.  Thankfully, Asta’s sister Kerstin Mail came up with a workout that can be done, and swimming against a current can be more than enough.

Teamwork is necessary to bring the sail up well!

So what was different about today?  Today was the day the sail went up.

My day started at 4 in the morning with Anchor Watch.  Much like the night before I spent half the time looking for Orion or the Big Dipper or any other constellation I could find in the dark sky.  Coming from New York City, a dark sky like this was a dream for stargazing.

Around 5:10, the blue-black sky turned shades of pink in the east.  I sat, mesmerized, and watched.  I had seen sunsets and sunrises before, but watching it peek out from behind the trees and light the sky and water on a gently rocking boat was amazing.  I could hear the birds waking up and the fish breaking the surface of the water, which just smelled fresh.  There was also a gentle breeze.

It was the kind of perfection that would be written in a novel.

Shortly after the sun rose, the captain and first mate, Eric and Shanley respectively, did.  It was around 6 when I pulled up the anchor, big mess of seaweed that was, and we set off.  My shift started at six so I stayed on deck until breakfast at 7:30 and after that those of us on deck were grinding and giving slack and yanking on ropes on different parts of the ship.  Below, others were making sure everything was properly secured for whatever lay ahead.  We learned about the keel on day two, a large metal fin that was bottom heavy and prevented the boat from flipping over even if it was sideways; I thought it was just an “in case” safety measure.

Andy grinding the winch with Dr. Bill Edwards assisting in the first sail raise of the trip!

Andy grinding the winch with Dr. Bill Edwards assisting in the first sail raise of the trip!

After lots of hard work an excellent teamwork the sail was up and catching wind.  With the motor Sea Dragon reached up to 8 knots, but Shayne tilted the wheel into a beam reach and with a whoosh of air we were over 9.5 knots.  This was the moment the world changed.  The boat sped up as the wind’s angle inched towards optimal.  The boat also tilted.  The port side began to skim the water as the starboard side lifted higher into the air.  “9.7!”

We all cheered as we grabbed onto things and rearranged footing.  The wind was strong and prefect for cooling down the hot day.  Sea Dragon flew across the water’s surface as we raced towards Toronto.  Under better conditions and a more experienced crew I’ve heard Sea Dragon reached 14.2 knots, but for our first time, scaling 9 was pretty good.  Now what goes up must come down, whether it a rugby ball or a park swing or a boat.

When sailing upwind the ships sails close hull, which has the boat moving in smallest angle from the wind direction possible; this creates a jagged path.  Tacking and gybing, changing which side of the boat is closest to the wind, is how the boat travels upwind.  I didn’t get to see one until after my 1-5pm nap.

In this turn, the jib sail switches from the windward to leeward side and the boat turns so that the leeward side becomes the windward side.  The boat itself evens out before tipping in the other direction.  Depending on the type, tack or gybe, the flattening out is as the boat goes up or downwind respectively.  I’m thankful everything was tied down!

This is Andy on Sea Dragon.  Out.

Andy takes the helm-she’s a natural!