Science Students See Real World Applications of Their Work

 It’s typical of college science majors to conduct experiments and write papers, but not many get to see fruits of their labors put to use in the real world, while they are still in school.

This has been the case for two University of Scranton students, sophomore Nathan Williams and junior Michelle T. Graham. Not only have they collaborated on inventions with their professor, but the devices they helped create have already been used – and, their names are included – on pending patents.

“Having a patent is pretty unusual for an undergraduate,” said Nicholas Truncale, a faculty specialist in the University’s Physics and Electrical Engineering Department. Over the past several months he worked on projects with Williams, an electrical engineering major from Carbondale, and Graham, a biophysics major from Succasunna, N.J.

Williams, Professor Truncale and James Loven, laboratory equipment manager for the Physics and Electrical Engineering Department, worked together on a device they call a Reflective Solar Tracker (RST). It is a device containing solar panels that rotates, so that it always faces the sun, and uses reflectors to maximize the energy produced. It can produce 140 percent more energy than conventional stationary solar installations on perfectly sunny days.

“I’m thrilled to have been a part of this. Energy is a precious resource that most people take for granted,” said Williams.

            Williams developed the hardware for the digital tracking system that controls the RST. He and Professor Truncale recently sent two RSTs to Uganda with Charles Pinches, Ph.D., a theology professor at the University, and a group of Scranton students.

            “We trained the students who went on the trip how to install them,” Professor Truncale said. “One will be used to power lights in a classroom, and one will be used to power a water well pump and to light classrooms.”

            “Sending the two RSTs to Uganda really put things into perspective for me. Something as simple as the water well pump will save people precious time in the morning hours. And what could be more important than extending daylight hours for those without night lighting?” Williams said.

            Williams added that many experiences grew out of the RST project for him. “I was given the opportunity to co-author two articles, one of which was published in The MagPi magazine and another is under review by the Journal of Engineering Entrepreneurship. I have presented at numerous events and conferences and have even been offered an internship. But most importantly, I have been given the opportunity to expand my knowledge of sustainable energy and learn to apply that knowledge in practical ways.”

            The RST is in the patent pipeline, and Williams will have his name on it. “To have something you had a hand in creating recognized to the point of investing a patent into it is an extraordinary accomplishment,” he said.

Graham collaborated with Professor Truncale on an electro-optical eardrum that can be used as a teaching model for deaf students in high school and college-level physics classes. Professor Truncale began the project in 2012. Graham fine-tuned it, making it easier for teachers to use, and co-authored a paper with him for the February 2014 issue of The Physics Teacher journal.

Professor Truncale presented the paper at a recent conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and demonstrated the device for students at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

The electro-optical eardrum can be used in physics classes with experiments that determine hearing sensitivity. The device consists of an open-ended PVC pipe with a membrane stretched over one end. A small circular mirror is glued onto the outside of the membrane. When sound enters the pipe, the membrane and mirror vibrate. When someone shines a laser beam onto the vibrating mirror, light bounces off and is projected in a particular pattern onto a screen. That way, a deaf student can see a visual representation of a particular hearing frequency.

A provisional patent on the electro-optical eardrum has been filed with the U.S. Patent Office, Professor Truncale said, and Graham is listed as a co-inventor.

Graham said all aspects of the project have been a great experience for her. She was excited about improving the design of the device. “If you want it to be a learning tool, you want to make it as easy as possible to use,” she said. And she was grateful for the opportunity to co-author a scholarly paper.

            Coincidentally, Graham is taking sign language classes at the University. “I’ve had experience with people who are deaf. My instructor has told us some of the difficulties they go through. That really motivated me for this project – so that deaf students can learn the same things in the classroom that I can.”


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