Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Author: Will Sheehan

Duke’s Solar Benches Can Charge Your Phone

Aren’t the benches at Duke great? They’re nice structures where you can chill with your friends, eat your Panda Express, get homework done, or maybe even nap. But haven’t you ever been working on a bench outside the Bryan Center around dusk, and it’s getting hard to see those Econ notes? Or cursed under your breath because it’s such a beautiful day outside, but your laptop is about to die?

Benches with solar power have been installed in three spots, including the McClendon Bridge.

Yeah, me too.

That’s exactly what inspired Gerry Chen, a Junior here at Duke, to create the “Solar Bench.” With the support of Smart Home and ESG, Gerry adapted an ordinary swinging bench at Duke into one with iPhone chargers and fully controllable LED strip lights. So fear no more! Now you can send all the snaps you want on your phone without worries of draining your battery, or grind out hours of multi homework while watching the sunset. The best part? It’s all solar powered!

November 6-9 was Energy Week, and on Monday mechanical engineer Shomik Verma presented the “Smart Home Demo,” which featured the inception, design, and implementation of the Solar Bench idea (1). The main motive behind the benches is “to increase the vision and awareness of renewable energy around Duke.” In this sense Gerry took something that started off as a cool way to stay outside after dark, and expanded it into a mode of adding renewable energy to Duke’s campus.

Beneath the canopy is a weatherproof box with a power controller and a bunch of dongles.

These benches are a great addition, especially now that it gets dark at like 5:40 (I mean, come on). Right now there’s three of them—one on the McClendon Bridge, one in the Few Quad, and one at the Smart Home (which you should check out, too—there’s tons of cool stuff there).

It kind of seems like these benches can’t do that much, but keep in mind this is still a relatively new project which started in May. One upgrade that could be happening soon is implementing a way to monitor energy and bench usage. But Gerry’s also got some bigger plans in store. With “Gen 2” he hopes to add more durability, Wifi, laptop chargers, and even motion sensing technology. Now that’s a decked-out bench! There’s more solar benches to come, too. Gerry hopes to make the installation easier and ultimately increase production, especially on East Campus.

Right now, it costs about $950 to make one of these solar benches. Each one has a 250 Watt solar panel sitting on the roof that absorbs energy from the sun and stores it in a big battery at one end of the bench. Underneath the canopy, there’s a thing called a “charge controller” that takes the energy from the sun and battery and distributes it appropriately to the lights and chargers. That’s also where the on / off switch is, as well as knobs to adjust the brightness and color of the lights. On a full charge, the battery can last for four days with no more additional sunlight. Even late in the night, the bench has you covered.

Will demonstrates a proper solar-powered chill.

That’s what’s so cool about solar energy. It almost seems too easy. These benches are saving energy while also using a renewable source. In the process, they’re doing their part to inspire Duke to become a greener campus. In Shomik’s words, this is the sort of technology “that will revolutionize the daily lives of people throughout the world.”

Free, clean energy, that just powers this bad-ass bench nonstop? Who knew a star 93 million miles away could be so useful?!

Will SheehanBy Will Sheehan

The Internet of Things: Useful or Dangerous?

The Internet of Things has tons of possibilities and applications, but some of them could be malicious.

This week, the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) held an open house in the Technology Engagement Center (TEC) where you could go in and check out the new equipment they’ve installed. They all have one central theme: the Internet of Things (IoT). What is the Internet of Things? It’s pretty simple. The Internet of Things “refers to the interconnectivity of devices on the internet.” In other words, if something can connect to things like wifi, social media, or your phone, it makes it an IoT device!

A classic example of an IoT device I’m sure you’re all familiar with is the Amazon Echo. You could ask it to order you something, look up a word, what the weather is like… you get the idea. Echo and Alexa are just one kind of IoT. We’re also talking lightbulbs, outlets, robots, thermostats…  Eventually your whole house might become an IoT device. The future is here!

Devices such as the Echo Dot, Philips Hue Smart Lightbulb, Samsung Smart Outlet, Meccano Robot, and Swipe-O-Matic are all showcased in the TEC. It’s part of the DDI’s “IoT Initiative” this year to give Duke faculty, staff, and students a better understanding of the power of IoT devices. As one expert on site said, “the devices are everywhere.”

The Co-Lab had actually hacked the Echo Dot and programmed in some of their own commands, so it was responding to questions like “Who is Maria?” and “Where is this place?”

The Meccano Robot (named “Techy”) was fun to mess around with, and a big hit among attendees. He’s more of a consumer-friendly toy, but just by using voice-commands I got him to give me a high-five and even tango.

Me, cheesin’ with Techy

The smart lightbulb was low-key the coolest thing there. By using multiple lights you can customize different “environments” like a TV watching environment or party environment, and the lights will change color/brightness accordingly with just a tap on your phone. The smart outlets were cool, too. They can be controlled remotely from your phone and even have timers set.

The student-built Swipe-O-Matic added me to the Co-Lab mailing list, just by swiping my Duke card.

One device — the “Swipe-O-Matic”—was actually invented by Duke students, and we used it to add my name to the Co-Lab mailing list just by swiping my Duke Card.

While these devices are all fun and useful, one expert I spoke with noted “there’s lots of consequences to using them—good, and bad.”

As they become more consumer available, if your machine is particularly vulnerable, bad people could hack into parts of your life. Think about a smart door lock. It’s super useful—you can create virtual keys for family members, let someone in remotely, or give your housekeepers access at certain times of the day. However, this could obviously go pretty badly if someone were to hack it and enter your house.

But don’t worry. As technology progresses, IoT devices will eventually be all around us. While security is an issue, these devices have way more good to them than bad. “Snapchat spectacles” are sunglasses that can record video and upload it straight to the Snapchat app. Someone at the TEC had the idea for “smart window blinds” that know when to open and close. Imagine a plant pot that sent you a notification when it needed to be watered. The uses are seemingly endless!

Will SheehanPost by Will Sheehan

Smoking Weed: the Good, Bad and Ugly

DURHAM, N.C. — Research suggests that the earlier someone is exposed to weed, the worse it is for them.

Very early on in our life, we develop basic motor and sensory functions. In adolescence, our teenage years, we start developing more complex functions — cognitive, social and emotional functions. These developments differ based on one’s experience growing up — their family, their school, their relationships — and are fundamental to our growth as healthy human beings.

This process has shown to be impaired when marijuana is introduced, according to Dr. Diana Dow-Edwards of SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

Sure, a lot of people may think marijuana isn’t so bad…but think again. At an Oct. 11 seminar at Duke’s Center on Addiction & Behavior Change, Dow-Edwards enlightened those who attended with correlations between smoking the reefer and things like IQ, psychosis and memory.

(https://media.makeameme.org/created/Littering-and-SMOKIN.jpg)

Dow-Edwards is currently a professor of physiology and pharmacology and clearly knows her stuff. She was throwing complicated graphs and large studies at us, all backing up her primary claim: the “dose-response relationship.” Basically the more you smoke (“dose”), the more of a biological effect it will have on you (“response”).

Looking at pot users after adolescence showed that occasionally smoking did not cause a big change in IQ, and frequently smoking affected IQ a little. However, looking at adults who smoked during adolescence correlated to a huge drop of around 7 IQ points for infrequent smokers and 10 points for frequent smokers. Here we see how both age and frequency play a role in weed’s effect on cognition. So if you are going to make the choice to light up, maybe wait until your executive functions mature around 24 years old.

Smoking weed earlier in life also showed a strong correlation with an earlier onset of psychosis, a very serious mental disorder in which you start to lose sense of reality. Definitely not good. I’m not trynna get diagnosed with psychosis any time soon!

One perhaps encouraging study for you smokers out there was that marijuana really had no effect on long-term memory. Non-smokers were better at verbal learning than heavy smokers…until after a three week abstinence break, where the heavy smokers’ memories recovered to match the control groups’. So while smoking weed when you have a test coming up maybe isn’t the best idea, there’s not necessarily a need to fear in the long run.

(Hanson et al, 2010)

A similar study showed that signs of depression and anxiety also normalized after 28 days of not smoking. Don’t get too hyped though, because even after the abstinence period, there was still “persistent impulsivity and reduced reward responses,” as well as a drop in attention accuracy.

A common belief about weed is that it is not addicting, but it actually is. What happens is that after repetitively smoking, feeling high no longer equates to feeling better than normal, but rather being sober equates to feeling worse than normal. This can lead to irritability, reduced appetite, and sleeplessness. Up to 1/2 of teens who smoke pot daily become dependent, and in broader terms, 9 percent of people who just experiment become dependent.

In summary, “marijuana interferes with normal brain development and maturation.” While it’s not going to kill you, it does effect your cognitive functions. Plus, you are at a higher risk for mental disorders like psychosis and future dependence. So choose wisely, my friends.

By Will Sheehan

Will Sheehan

Engineering Design Pod: The Newest Innovation Center

You guys have to check out the brand new Engineering Design Pod! What used to be the Blue Express Cafe, this giant oval-shaped room with huge glass windows under the LSRC is now a space for creation.

Duke Engineering Design Pod entrance

Duke Engineering’s new Design Pod for students is in the Levine Science Research Center.

There’s essentially all the equipment in there that an engineer could ever want, organized ever so beautifully in labeled drawers and hung on walls: screwdrivers, nails, hammers, saws, pool noodles… plus, there are scientific-looking tables (a.k.a. workbenches), rolly-stools, extension chords that come down from the ceiling, even TVs… this place is frickin’ awesome!

worktables in Duke Engineering Design Pod

Everything in the Design Pod is on wheels for easy reconfiguration

The “Design Pod” was created alongside Duke’s new engineering design course in order to to foster learning through hands-on experience. Students have tested out the 3D printer to create items such as a skull and even chess pieces. There’s a massive laser printer, foam cutter, panel saw, and more to come. At one end of the  room there are lots of cubbies, used for holding backpacks so they don’t get in the way. In the future, team projects will be stored there, too. Several big whiteboards on wheels are scattered around the room, which students take advantage of to outline their work and draw up ideas. Almost everything is on wheels, in fact, because as Dr. Ann Saterbak explained to me, the pod is “designed to be a flexible space.” It really is a special place, carefully geared toward collaboration and innovation. Just being in there made me want to create something!

UNC chess board

Awkward! One student made a UNC-themed chessboard in Duke’s new Design Pod.

Kyra McDonald, a freshman currently taking the engineering design course, says it’s her favorite class. The class is split up into teams and each team picks from a list of projects that they will pursue for the whole semester — examples include things like a flexible lemur feeder and a drone water sampler. What she likes so much about the class is rather than a typical lecture where you listen and take notes the whole time, this design course is all about working in your team and applying what you know to real-world scenarios.

Dr. Saterbak further developed this point. Although this is her first year at Duke, in her experience students not only get a good sense of what engineers actually do, but also leave with a “concrete, practical thing” which they are proud of and can talk about at job interviews. All the cool features that make up the design pod — the tools, the room, the flexibility — are there so Dr. Saterbak’s previous experience can become a reality for Duke students.

Duke Engineering Design Pod

A 3D printed skull in the Design Pod

Because they’re still in the pre-design phase, the freshman in the class haven’t really needed to use the space to its full potential.

But that will come as soon as the physical creation starts happening. Students in the class will have special access to the design pod off-hours, so get ready because the innovation levels are about to be booming!

Story and Photos By Will Sheehan Will Sheehan

New Blogger Will Sheehan: Freshman with a Love of the Outdoors

Hi there! My name is Will Sheehan, and I’m a freshman at Duke. While I’m currently undecided, I plan on studying electrical and computer engineering and possibly double majoring in computer science. I grew up on Maui, Hawaii, but now live with my mom in Austin, Texas. I spend my summers and winters with my dad Will Sheehan by the oceanback on Maui surfing, dirt biking, hiking and more. I like to think that spending so much time in the outdoors has given me a deep appreciation for nature, and in return a fiery passion for sciences like physics and chemistry.

The summer before  junior year I traveled to Beijing, China to live with a host family for a month. Having to speak their language nearly the whole time, I turned to journaling in order to empty my thoughts. They effortlessly spilled onto the page; it felt as if I couldn’t write fast enough, and that my ideas would flee before I could cement them in ink.

I soon found a new love for personal writing. The next summer I interned for a company named ShakaCode, and while I learned the ins and outs of applying Ruby on Rails to website development I blogged about my experience. As soon as school started, my old calculus teacher approached me, saying how he had read my blogWill Sheehan riding a dirt bike and loved my style of writing as well as what I had to say. That year in advanced calculus he had our class use blogs as a way to track our progress in whatever project or research we were pursuing.

Attempting to communicate complex, specialized information is an intriguing challenge that I find satisfying to complete. I have developed this skill not only through my blogging experience but also through tutoring in math the past couple years. While I do plan on pursuing computer science, I am still entirely open to a career in scientific research. Discovering something new has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.

Will Sheehan on a cliffI hope that as a part of the Duke Research Blog I get to share new, important findings with our community as I further my own understanding along the way. I see this as a learning opportunity for both myself and those around me, and hope that Duke takes an interest in all that I have to say about the cool stuff they might not normally know about!

Post by Will Sheehan

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