CORVALLIS - One might think that inventors who could produce new uses for lasers, technology to aid people with physical disabilities, or a clever new concept to find stolen cars would be working at some high-powered research laboratory with million-do llar funding support.

Actually, they're just students at Oregon State University. But the inventions are quite real.

In what are called "capstone" projects, many OSU students in the College of Engineering, working either individually or in small groups, take the skills they have spent years learning and apply them to address some real-world problem or create a new pr oduct with commercial potential.

"We think these are unusually good learning experiences and such courses have received glowing evaluations from our accreditation agencies," said James Van Vechten, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Besides just using their new engin eering skills, the students also are exposed to writing reports, oral presentations, social and regulatory issues, intellectual property rights and patent procedures, and many other useful areas."

And the results can be quite inventive, to say the least.

A couple years ago, an electrical and computer engineering student designed a global positioning device that could help locate a car if it was stolen. This year a student developed an "intelligent" highway sign board with digital image recognition that would recognize repeat traffic offenders and mail them warnings. And another student created an electric fence charger that only fires when the fence is touched by an animal - a blessing for any farmer who's seen stars after bumping the wire.

"This year 26 projects were completed by seniors who received degrees in mechanical engineering," said Gordon Reistad, professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "The majority of the projects were done in cooperation with industry within Oregon and the Northwest, and various industries indicated they were of great value to their organization."

Just in that department at OSU, industrial collaborators included Boeing, Tektronix, Oregon Freeze Dry, Wacker Siltronic, Hewlett Packard, Sequent Computer Systems, Baler Equipment Co., South Eugene High School and Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, amon g others.

"As a small company boot-strapping itself through the research and development process, OSU's capstone design project fit our needs perfectly," said Michael Beidler, president of B and B Manufacturing, which used two OSU student groups to work on new w heel chair designs. "Because of their assistance, we are a big step closer to marketing our product."

According to Reistad, projects can be linked to faculty research, public service, national student design competitions or just the personal interests of the student. The results can range from a set of design drawings to a complete working prototype of a new product.

Projects start in the fall of each year, and Pacific Northwest businesses and industries interested in participating in this program can contact the OSU College of Engineering.

"Some of the projects are more ambitious than others, but a fair number of them are quite advanced and clearly have commercial potential," Van Vechten said. "And, of course, the students always get a much better grade if their invention actually works. "


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Gordon Reistad, 541-737-3441