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Dallas College Engineers Head to D.C. for Innovation Challenge Finals

Four students who are participants in the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy at Dallas College will present an engineering project at an Innovation Boot Camp in Washington, D.C. (photo courtesy of Dallas College)

Dallas College students are gearing up for an exciting opportunity after being named finalists in the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC).

"This is an engineering professor’s dream come true," said LaTasha Starr, a professor from Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy, expressing her delight as one of her teams was selected to present their project at an Innovation Boot Camp in Washington, D.C. Alongside 12 other teams nationwide, the Dallas College group will showcase "AMBER" (Autonomous Monitoring for Blaze Emergency Response), a fire monitoring system developed in response to a recent Texas Panhandle fire.

Led by Sebastien Vongkaseum, Peter Hansen, Anish Yakkanti, and David Navarro, the AMBER system utilizes infrared technology and drones to detect and respond to fires swiftly. "We have infrared technology that detects abnormal heat signatures and smoke. Drones fly out to the location, pick out the heat sources and send exact coordinates as well as photographs to first responders," said Hansen.

Meanwhile, another Dallas College team, composed of Leslie Martinez, Owen Weis, Shoaib Ali, and Jordan Lawson, designed a system to combat distracted driving using cameras, sensors, and biometrics.

As students prepare to transition to the Texas A&M campus in the fall, they pointed out some advantages of the program.

  • Peter Hansen was drawn to the versatility of an engineering degree. “The program at Dallas College offered smaller classes, more one-on-one with the professors, especially in introductory courses. I am grateful I took this opportunity because I feel very confident in what I’ve learned,” he said. “One thing I didn't expect was to have such a good community at Dallas College. I made some great friendships. I think that’s not something I would find so easily at such a big university. Since we’re all moving down to A&M, we’ll have each other.” Hansen will major in aerospace engineering and is interested in aircraft design, especially experimental aircrafts.
  • Sebastien Vongkaseum said he’s always liked taking things apart to see how they worked, and he knew engineering was for him after taking a 3D modeling class in high school. While he’s wanted to attend Texas A&M for his whole life, he had to explore other options when he didn’t get accepted into the A&M engineering program. Then, he discovered the Engineering Academy at Dallas College. “I’m really happy with the decision I made,” he said. “It’s an excellent program with a direct path into [Texas] A&M engineering majors, without having to come in as a transfer.” Vongkaseum plans to pursue either mechanical or aerospace engineering and hopes to one day work in the airline industry.
  • Leslie Martinez has always been good at creating things from scratch and decided she wanted to be an engineer at age 4. A native of College Station, she came to Dallas College to play soccer and found out about the Engineering Academy. “It worked out perfectly because it gave me the opportunity to get a little bit ahead of people transferring to Texas A&M,” she said. The program helped confirm her interest in engineering. She said her classmates have been very supportive. “We’ve grown really tight, and we all study together and look forward to doing that when we move to College Station.” Her focus will be data engineering, and she hopes to one day enter the banking industry.
  • Owen Weis started at Dallas College unsure of what field he wanted to pursue. “I knew I wanted to shoot a little higher and challenge my mind. I found the idea of mixing creativity and STEM fields together was perfect for me,” he said. “If you want to be successful in engineering, it’s extremely important to ask questions and communicate with your teachers. The student to teacher ratio at Dallas College is amazing.” He has enjoyed connecting with the other engineering students at the academy. “I’m going to have so many connections in a million different fields,” he said. Weis would like to be an artificial intelligence and machine learning engineer and is interested in human/robot engineering and the autonomous vehicle industry.

"My instructional method is industry-based learning, designed to bring together technology, business and entrepreneurship," Starr emphasized. They praised smaller class sizes and close interactions with professors, which prepared them well for the rigorous challenges of the CCIC.

"The competition matched what students were already learning in class," said Starr. "Through our engineering course, we were equipped with valuable skills — from identifying the problem to the engineering design phase and every step in between."

The Innovation Boot Camp, scheduled for June 10-14, promises professional development, mentoring, and a chance to pitch their ideas to industry leaders and Congressional stakeholders. "There’s nothing more important than that because you know nothing will happen with these ideas unless you’re able to present them," said Weis. For these aspiring engineers, the event marks a significant step in their academic and professional journeys, showcasing their potential to address real-world challenges through STEM innovation.

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