Up to the challenge

Engineering team’s high-tech healthy-food tracker destined for national competition next month in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Gendreau, Eric Horton, Joseph Aymond and Tyler Kast

A team of engineering students will compete in a a global Grand Challenge event next month in Washington, D.C. They are Eric Horton, Andover, Minn.; Jeff Gendreau, Bismarck; Joseph Aymond, Grand Forks; and Tyler Kast, Minot. Photo by Shawna Schill.

UND engineering students are taking on a grand challenge.

The UND team will be one of 12 from across the nation competing in an engineering business model challenge next month in Washington, D.C.

At the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge March 15, they’ll present a business plan and prototype that could change how people make food choices. If they win, they’ll be one of five U.S. teams to compete against students from China and the United Kingdom in July.

“We can compete against any school,” said team member Jeff Gendreau, an electrical engineering senior from Bismarck, N.D. “It’s an awesome opportunity.”

Gendreau has interned at United Launch Alliance, a rocket company in Denver, with students from MIT, Texas A&M and other major engineering schools. UND engineering students, Gendreau said, are at the same level as those students: “We fit right in.”

Other team members include Eric Horton from Andover, Minn.; Joseph Aymond, Grand Forks; and Tyler Kast, Minot.

Their idea is to take UND’s holistic approach to wellness a little further. Food on campus carries a “star rating” indicating nutritional content, and the team saw an opportunity to use that information to track nutritional data over time.

The KNIFES (Key Nutritional Intake Feedback System) app, database and website help people make healthy food choices. They receive a log and food consumption history, as well as personalized feedback.

“It’s like a weather pattern — users can see trends in their food choices,” said Gendreau. And food providers can better cater to users’ tastes and manage food logistics.

“It’s a great project with many applications, and students will gain valuable experience,” said Reza Fazel-Rezai, associate professor of electrical engineering and the team’s advisor.

“We have the environment, the support, and the big ideas at UND,” said Fazel. “We can do great things.”

The KNIFES

A UND Engineering team is set to unveil its newly developed app, database and Website, called The KNIFES (Key Nutritional Intake Feedback System). It’s designed to help people make healthy food choices. They receive a log and food consumption history, as well as personalized feedback.

Solving problems

The contest is part of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, not to be confused with UND’s own Grand Challenges initiative to use University research expertise and technological assets to solve major energy and workforce related problems in North Dakota.

About 120 universities in the U.S. have committed to get involved in the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, and just 40, including UND, are approved for it right now. The goal is to solve world problems and give engineering students skills in business, entrepreneurship, and more.

Initiated by the National Academy of Engineering, the program is designed to prepare students to solve 14 pressing issues such as providing access to clean water, engineering better medicines, preventing nuclear terror, advancing personal learning and more.

“The grand challenges are a vision statement for the future of engineering,” said Brian Tande, director of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program on campus and chair of the Chemical Engineering Department. “The goal is to help solve big problems that the world faces. This is a movement that can change engineering education, and it has started to do that.”

“We can change the world for the better,” said Quinn Huisman, one of 10 Grand Challenge Scholars on campus and a junior civil engineering student from Blue Earth, Minn. “Our generation is in tune with these problems.” He is working on a clean water project.

“We take clean water for granted,” Huisman said. “But there are 800 million people without access to clean water, and 6 million die annually from lack of clean water. I want to be one of the guys who figure out how to make water clean. That’s why I want to be an engineer.”

Real-world experience

“Giving students the opportunity to work on a grand challenge motivates them,” said Tande. “Engineering is about more than getting a good job. The Grand Challenge gives students skills beyond the technical. They learn leadership, business management and entrepreneurship — the skills that traditional engineering education hasn’t provided.”

It also provides real-world experience.

Students must complete a hands-on project or research related to a Grand Challenge; take courses in other fields such as business, public policy, law, ethics, arts, medicine, and more; be entrepreneurial as they translate their invention to a marketable venture; develop a global perspective; and take part in service learning with clients.

Besides the learning experience, students receive a certificate from the National Academy of Engineering and a $500 scholarship each semester. They can also apply for additional support of up to $6,000, to develop their project. Much of the funding comes from the Edson and Margaret Larson Foundation, which has its roots in Mayville, N.D.

“It’s win-win,” said Tande about the program. “Success is based as much on people skills and business acumen as the ability to solve partial differential equations.”