Five student teams embark on tech for social good projects

Orange wildfire smoke glows behind dark trees.
Created by the Visualizing Wildfire Impact team, this image was generated using artificial intelligence techniques for the purpose of testing their immersive virtual reality visualization.
From living solar panels to education through digital storytelling for formerly incarcerated peoples, students at UC Santa Cruz are tackling today’s pressing issues through technological innovation.

The UCSC Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute and the UCSC Institute for Social Transformation have teamed up to support student projects aimed at creating technology that promotes healthy, sustainable, prosperous, and equitable livelihoods throughout the world, as part of the Tech for Social Good program. 

Teams of at least two undergraduate, graduate, and/or postdoctoral students were tasked with addressing domestic and global poverty, sustainability, government responsiveness and civic engagement, or enhancing education. Five student projects were chosen for funding this year and will show their work at the Tech for Social Good Showcase event this June. 

Living Solar Panels 

The Living Solar Panels project explores the potential of cacti as a carbon-neutral source of renewable energy because of the unique properties of the plants’ photosynthesis process. As a cactus photosynthesizes, a hydrogen ion imbalance occurs within the plant which can be measured as a voltage – the team of students hope to harvest this as energy via a patch of their invention. Twenty prickly pear cacti on the UCSC farm will serve as the testbed for this project over the next two years. 

• Charlie Chesney, Graduate, Environmental Studies
• Angelina Powers, Undergraduate, Human Biology
• Joe Zheng, Undergraduate, Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology & Biotechnology
• Erin Langness, Undergraduate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
• Josh Sachs, Undergraduate, Computer Science

Visualizing Wildfire Impact

A team of students plan to take advantage of recent developments in commercial virtual reality (VR) technology to simulate wildfire impact. In partnership with the UCSC Social Emotional Technology Laboratory (SET) Lab within the Baskin Engineering Computational Media Department and UC Berkeley's Soga Research Group, the team will use VR tools to provide more accessible information on wildfire traffic impact, risk assessment, and smoke spread.

• Samir Ghosh, Graduate, Computational Media
• Saranya Elangovan, Undergraduate, Technology and Information Science
• Samantha Wang, Undergraduate, Physics
• Pakhi Sinha, Undergraduate, Computer Science
• Kyle Ko, Undergraduate, Neuroscience
• Chris Avila, Undergraduate, Earth Science
• Kit Rao, Undergraduate, Chemistry & Applied Physics

Gateways Digital Media Classes

The Gateways Project, which began in 2019, envisions a new model of education to combat high barriers to community re-entry for people who are incarcerated. Two students and fellows of the Everett Program will continue the project’s work of developing digital storytelling methods, including filmmaking, story mapping, social media campaigning, and graphic design. They will then connect and learn with incarcerated community members while sharing these new skills.

• Katheline Vanegas, Undergraduate, Sociology with GISES
• Nadia Vazquez, Undergraduate, Business Management Economics

Low Cost Sensor Hardware for Microbial Fuel Cell Monitoring and Data Collection

Microbial fuel cells are an emerging technology that harvest energy from bacteria that live in soil, and can therefore serve as a renewable energy source to agricultural sensing networks. A team of students plan to test the effectiveness of microbial fuel cells in environments with varying conditions such as soil texture and nutrients, temperature, soil moisture, and electrical conductivity to ultimately advance technology for a lower-cost and low-power agriculture sensing system.  

• Sonia Naderi, Postdoctorate, Electrical and Computer Engineering
• John Madden, Undergraduate, Robotics Engineering
• Brian Govers, Graduate, Electrical and Computer Engineering
• Stephen Taylor, Undergraduate, Robotics Engineering

Web-Accessible Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Serious Game for the Remote Treatment of PTSD

Trauma-sensitive yoga has proven an effective strategy for treating PTSD in some patients, but the barriers to access in-person classes limit the treatment’s potential. Four students plan to create a remote version of Trauma-sensitive yoga that can be accessed with just a web browser and webcam that will offer interactive and individualized care for its users. 

• Samuel Shields, Graduate, Computational Media
• Ramon Rubio, Undergraduate, Network and Digital Technology
• Maxim Kuznetzov, Graduate, Computational Media
• Likha Pulido, Undergraduate, Computer Engineering