Design Innovation for the 21st Century

Kent State is bringing together diverse resources in the arts, sciences and business to solve real-world problems through project-based learning and discovery.

By April McClellan-Copeland

At Kent State University, design innovation is more than an abstract concept or the latest educational buzzword. It is a movement that is sparking cross-disciplinary partnerships to solve complex challenges by using design thinking and innovation.

Kent  State’s recently announced Design Innovation (DI) Initiative will not only promote interdisciplinary collaboration and elevate design thinking principles, it will strive to create the next generation of innovators for the 21st century.

The initiative will bring ideas and innovations from many disciplines—including aeronautics, engineering, brain health, sustainability, biochemistry, marketing, advanced materials science/liquid crystals, computer science, fashion and entrepreneurship—together in a 68,000 square foot DI Hub at the center of the Kent Campus. Renovations to the former Art building, which will be transformed into the DI Hub, are planned to begin in spring 2019, with an expected opening date of August 2020.

“At Kent State, like most universities, we have more expertise centers than I have time to mention,” President Beverly J. Warren recently shared with an audience at Pitch NEON, a pitch contest sponsored by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation. “But developing them is only half the battle. The other half is sparking cross-disciplinary curiosity and partnerships. Discarding obsolete boundaries. Boring through protective silos to try new things.”

Having a dedicated space like the DI Hub  will create a home base for the kinds of innovative partnerships that already take place across Kent State’s campuses.

Design Innovation Concept Drawing
The DI Hub “will be shared by all, but owned by none,” says J.R. Campbell, inaugural executive director of the Design Innovation Initiative. He envisions the Hub as a 24/7 space to hatch solution-oriented ideas, where “flash challenges” will bring people together to try their hand at solving real-world problems.

“The goal for the Hub is to connect the makerspaces and design, technology and resource laboratories across all Kent State locations to make them understood and accessible by the larger community,” Mr. Campell says.

Having a dedicated  space like the DI Hub will create a home base for the kinds of innovative partnerships that already take place across Kent State’s campuses. Design innovation is happening every day as the university’s students, faculty, leading experts, alumni and community members from diverse disciplines come together in collaborative teams to tackle difficult challenges—as seen in the following innovative projects that teams have been working on over the past couple years.

DI Nodes


Learn More About Design Innovation

Dr. Yanhai Du and Angela Deibel pose  with the ZEV on the Kent Campus.

Project: Zero Emission Vehicle

The biggest thing is to get students into research. Getting into it early on propelled me.”
Angela Deibel, BS ’19

As Kent State senior Angela Deibel guides the ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) from the Aeronautics and Technology Building to front campus on a recent sunny day, she glances at a row of small lights that flash overhead.

“Those lights let us know that the battery has charged,” she explains to a passenger. “One day of sunlight (24 hours) equals eight miles.”

The ZEV is a repurposed golf cart with an electric engine powered by three sources: a fuel cell, solar panel and batteries. The fuel cell efficiently converts fuel, such as hydrogen or natural gas, into electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions. The solar panel on the roof charges the batteries all the time. When the cart is resting or the batteries are fully charged, the electricity generated by the solar panel can be used to electrolyze water into hydrogen and store the solar energy for later use.

“Renewable energy is the future,” says Ms. Deibel, who recently did an internship at a solar panel company. “I’m putting all bets on fuel cells.”

In summer 2016, Ms. Deibel interned with Dr. Yanhai Du, PhD—associate professor in the College of Aeronautics and Engineering and team leader and principal investigator of Kent State University’s Fuel Cell Program—in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).

At the time, she was a marketing major with a minor in sustainability who knew little about fuel cells or solar panels. She joined a team of students who were majoring in electrical engineering, chemical engineering and digital sciences. They all received hands-on experience with fuel cells to develop the first version of the ZEV.

“I saw that I could count on her,” says Dr. Du, who made Ms. Deibel the team leader. “I knew that if I guided and supported her, she would be successful.”

Ms. Deibel says Dr. Du gave her the opportunity to make mistakes as she explored her deepening dedication to sustainability and engineering, while sustaining her passion for marketing—and she is grateful for her mentor’s support. Since immersing herself in renewable energy, she has changed her major to mechanical engineering and made marketing a minor.

“The biggest thing is to get students into research,” she says. “Getting into it early on propelled me.”

The ZEV, with its state-of-the-art sound system that allows music to be streamed around campus, is available for alumni tours and for use by student organizations. And driving the ZEV around campus is a perfect way to educate people about renewable energy.

“I want to be a voice in the renewable energy community,” says Ms. Deibel, reluctant to give up her marketing edge. “I don’t want to just be an engineer—though I love it—but I want to tell [the public] about renewable energy.” 

To rent the ZEV, contact Dr. Du at

Learn More About Zero Emission Vehicles (Z.E.V.)

Above: The Fringe team (l to r)—Elena Blaginykh, Paramanand Deginal, Michelle Park, Naser Madi.

Project: Fringe

Don’t be alarmed if you see graduate student Michelle Park, BA ’18, strolling across the Kent Campus one evening and her clutch purse flashes from radiant red to pulsing purple to glowing green.

Fringe PrototypeThe fiber optic purse that she and a team of students invented earlier this year at Kent State’s Fifth Annual Fashion/Tech Hackathon may be alerting her that she has just received a text message or phone call. The team won the “Best Use of Technology in Creating New Fashion Project” award for the purse, which at the time they named “Firefly.”

Ms. Park and her teammates come from a cross-section of disciplines and backgrounds. She recently began a two-year graduate program in fashion industry studies and is from Seattle; Naser Madi is a PhD candidate in computer science from Jordan; Elena Blaginykh, MPH ’18, is a medical doctor and PhD candidate in social and behavioral science from Russia; and Paramanand Deginal, is a junior aeronautical engineering major from India.

“We met at the Hackathon and became best friends,” she says. “All four of us like creating, inventing and putting all of our disciplines together to create something new.”

Currently the project team has two rough prototypes of the purse, which now goes by the name “Fringe.” The team changed the name because the word has definitions from science, fashion and culture that are relevant to the brand.

They also have created a branded website, where they sell earrings made from laser-cut seashells to help raise seed money for putting the purse prototype into production.

An app controls the fiber optics of the purse and includes 16 different colors that can be programed to match a user’s outfit. The purse also has a GPS system so that it can be located if stolen.

“It’s interactive,” Ms. Park says. “You connect the phone to the purse and it lights up when it receives notification from text messages or phone calls.”

In addition to being fashionable, the inventors hope the purse’s visual notification features will be useful for people who have hearing impairments. Ms. Blaginykh says that market niche is appealing to the team because they believe that “differently-abled people want to be trendy, too.”

Accessibility is at the core of the team’s values and making the product available to all is one of their main goals, according to Mr. Madi, who says the Fringe team benefits from the diverse fields of study each of them brings to the project.

“Elena, with her medical background, advocates for health-promoting ideas, while Param, as an engineer, constantly tries to find the most efficient way for doing things,” he says. “At the same time, Michelle pushes for sustainability and environmentally friendly solutions from fabrics to boxing and shipping. I am fortunate to work with such a talented group of accomplished individuals.”


Learn More About Fringe

Design Innovation Students

Project: alula

"We each have our own expertise that makes our business work.”
Ariella Yager, BBA ’17

More than two years ago, Ariella Yager, BBA ’17, an entrepreneurship major, and Samuel Graska, BS ’17, MBA ’18, a cellular/molecular biology major, got together to work on a project for an entrepreneurship class they were taking.

Their project was to develop an auto injector smartphone case, EpiCase, similar to the EpiPen. But before they began the day’s tasks, Ms. Yager realized she had forgotten to take her birth control pill for the third day in a row.

That is when another innovative idea was born.

“I said, ‘We should make a [phone] case for it,’” Mr. Graska recalls. “And Ariella said, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s get on top of this.’”

The classmates, along with architectural designer Justin Gleason, BS ’16, MArch ’18, MBA ’18, created “alula” (all lowercase)—a product they have dubbed the “first phone case to hold, protect and dispense your birth control.” Users load their birth control pills for the month in the phone case and rotate a round cutout on the back of the case. When they hear the click, a pill pops out from a slot on the side of the case. Consumers are encouraged to download the alula app to remind them to take their pill every day, Ms. Yager says.

Although the Case.MD team first came together to develop the EpiCase auto injector, that product—a more expensive and complex proposition than alula—is now going through the patent process.

Meanwhile, turning their focus to alula, the team has conducted surveys and focus groups with health and women’s organizations and pharmacies, and they’ve refined the design as they prepare to launch the product by January 2019.

prototype of the alula smartphone caseMr. Graska says they would not be where they are today without the staff at LaunchNET Kent State, who taught the team how to start a business. “We have videos, prototypes and we’re building up media,” he says. “We are using crowd funding to raise funds. Now we are trying to find manufacturing. This has been an awesome experience.”

To come up with the name, the team actually locked themselves in a room; during hours of brainstorming, they kept coming back to the word alula. Pronounced the same backward and forward, the word is a palindrome. Alula also has five letters, the same number of petals as a forget-me-not flower, and “Forget Me Not” is the company’s tagline. And an alula is an important part of a bird’s wing, which supports it in flight.

The team believes the collaboration among their disciplines has been the secret to the creative culture of Case.MD. “We each have our own expertise that makes our business work,” Ms. Yager says. “I bring the business and operations, Sam brings the medical and FDA leadership, and Justin brings the design. So far it has been incredible working together.”


Learn more about alula, sign up for the launch and get up-to-date information


Dr. Jong-Hoon Kim, Irvin Steve Cardenas, and Dr. Gokarna Sharma check out the ImmersiFLY flight simulator

Project: ImmersiFLY

"We must think systematically—a ‘combine and succeed’ mentality, rather than ‘divide and conquer.’”
Irvin Steve Cardenas, senior research scientist

Kent State team members Brian Selle (a computer science and political science major), Irvin Steve Cardenas (a senior research scientist) and Chaisay Letdara, BS ’18 (a computer science major), had a mission in mind when they entered the university’s first collegiate aviation hackathon in October 2017, sponsored by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

For the “SkyHack” competition, students were to provide solutions to challenges or “pain points” related to the aviation industry. The team wanted to offer pilot trainees a more immersive and effective flight training experience. Despite hours of simulation-based training, student pilots often feel tense during their first flight, due to the lack of realism in virtual simulators.

At the weekend-long event, the trio invented “ImmersiFLY: Next Generation of Immersive Pilot Training,” which won third place in the 2017 SkyHack competition, under the challenge of how to solve the pilot shortage.

According to the brief they submitted with their project, “the system is in essence an affordable flight simulator that allows completion of training hours toward license certification by allowing the pilot to fly a small-scale airplane under real conditions. The pilot is not only able to control the aircraft, but is also able to feel as if they themselves are inside the cockpit of the aircraft. This is accomplished by 1) providing a live stream of the environment within the cockpit into a virtual reality headset, 2) allowing the pilot to rotate their head freely and also 3) receive feedback from the aircraft (such as roll, pitch, yaw) which is relayed by the ‘motion’ chair.”

After the competition, the team wrote a paper about the project under the direction of Jong-Hoon Kim, PhD, assistant professor of computer science and director of Kent State’s Advanced Telerobotics Research (ATR) Laboratory at the Department of Computer Science. They submitted the paper to the American Council on Science and Education for its 2017 International Conference on Computational Science and Computational Intelligence, and they were selected to present the project at the conference in Las Vegas late last year.

The entire experience was invaluable, says Mr. Selle, because it allowed him to conduct research with other Kent State students, write an abstract about the research, then present it before an audience at a conference.

Before joining Kent State in 2016 as a lecturer and senior research scientist, Mr. Cardenas was a robotics researcher at Florida International University, where he worked with Dr. Kim on virtual reality, autonomous systems and immersive technologies—areas they continue to explore at Kent State’s ATR Lab.

“The future is decentralized,” says Mr. Cardenas. “To develop such a future, we must think systematically—a ‘combine and succeed’ mentality, rather than ‘divide and conquer.’”

He says ImmersiFLY could be an answer to high-cost commercial flight simulators, as well as an alternative for consumers who are virtual reality drone racers looking for a more immersive experience.


Download the paper on ImmersiFLY submitted for the 2017 SkyHack Competition

Learn More About ImmersiFLY

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POSTED: Tuesday, December 18, 2018 11:15 AM
UPDATED: Saturday, May 18, 2024 06:50 AM
April McClellan-Copeland