On move-in day, most college students are happy if they get a dorm
room with air conditioning, big closets and enough room for a television
and a mini-fridge. But how about keyless entry thanks to a fingerprint
scanner, real-time monitors of airborne bacteria, more audiovisual
equipment than most theaters and the automated sorting of recyclable
materials? That’s the dorm 10 Duke engineering students will
soon be calling home.
Duke University and Home Depot partnered to build the “Home
Depot smarthome,” a dorm-laboratory where students will not
only live but also research and develop innovative engineering solutions
for the home. The 6,000-square-foot facility, due to be completed
this fall, will be a combination residence hall, research lab and
engineering outreach project. Students—not only the 10 upper-class
engineering student residents, but also members of the Duke Smart
House Club and entire engineering classes—will be testing
new residential technology ideas developed on campus.
The Home Depot’s sponsorship is valued at $2 million in
cash and in-kind donations over a three-year period to cover the
cost of the dorm construction, which is already underway.
From improving the efficiency of hot water for showers to software
that can recognize the song a person is humming and play it over
the media network in the room, the students are hard at work, coming
up with ideas for improving security and home monitoring, communications,
energy efficiency, entertainment, environment and health. The 10
smarthome residents, who will be chosen based on tenure at the university
and in the smarthome project, will then live among and give feedback
on all the newly developed home technologies.
“The whole idea behind the program is to take something
that would normally be done by contractors and professional engineers
and turn that over to students and let them take a test drive in
the real world,” says Tom Rose, director of the Home Depot
smarthome and a 2005 graduate of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.
One of the biggest benefits of the project, Rose says, is how
it gets students involved in hands-on engineering activities early
on in their undergraduate experience. The students also gain valuable
lessons about project management, budgeting and communication by
creating project proposals, managing project teams and interacting
directly with corporations.
“Industry provides grounding and real-world challenges,”
Rose says. “They provide intense motivation because the students
really feel that they’re impacting important engineering decisions.”
There are two engineering classes being offered this spring in
connection with the smarthome project, but the vast majority of
the students participate in the project on an extracurricular basis.
The group did some preliminary advertising to tell students about
the project, but building interest is not a problem these days,
The idea for the smarthome was hatched in 2003 by then-electrical
engineering student Mark Younger, who graduated and was hired as
the first project director. To date, more than 225 students have
worked on technology and sustainable building projects, many of
which were incorporated into the design of the facility itself.
Mark Gu, student president of the smarthome and a sophomore in
biomedical and electrical and computer engineering, calls the house
a “canvas for engineers.” One of the current projects
underway is an electric scooter that would make use of Bluetooth
technology, turning on when the user is near it and turning off
when the user walks away. These projects are a chance for students
to get involved and truly make a difference on campus, Gu says.
“Right now it’s just a scooter, but in the future it
could be a smart car that could aid in transportation of students
Lynne Shallcross is associate editor of Prism.