From smart home security and eco-friendly sporting pigeons to nanotechnology and virtual classrooms, four faculty reveal their current research and how they aspire to change the world.

PROTECTING SMART HOME DEVICES

A digital illustration of a pair of hands holding and touching a digital tablet a house to control lighting, temperature and security.
Smart home devices can help make us more connected—and more vulnerable—than ever.

It sounds like the premise of a Hollywood thriller.

A person, newly separated from their partner, is alone at home in a house connected with smart technology. Suddenly, speakers start blasting music, every light turns on, and the thermostat kicks up to 100 degrees—all triggered by someone outside the residence maliciously manipulating the smart home devices.

Computer security expert and professor David Zeichick says this particularly sinister type of abuse is increasing in frequency, whether perpetrated by a would-be thief or vengeful ex-partner. Why is this type of attack becoming more prevalent? It’s easy to do, and the attacker often only has to know the victim’s username and password.

To battle this type of harassment, Zeichick is researching ways to create an application incorporating machine learning to identify changes to smart home device settings when they originate outside the home. The application would know who should have access to the home, and if an attempt to engage a connected home device comes from someone else, the resident would receive a notification. Eventually, Zeichick would like to add the capability to block all attempts to disrupt or change any of the home’s devices.

Sitting squarely at the intersection of technology and personal safety, legal recourse for this kind of activity is exceptionally limited, so Zeichick hopes his research can help provide options to thwart this kind of abuse. As the owner and user of smart home devices himself, he is in the early phases of his research, which he hopes to finish by next summer.

“The increase of smart devices in our connected homes has seen a rise in domestic abuse. We need to find ways to thwart attempts.”

Computer science professor David Zeichick

PLANT-BASED SPORTING PIGEONS

A digital illustration of a sporting pigeon exploding over green plants.

The time-honored activity of shooting at clay pigeons is practiced around the world—with approximately 6 million pigeons produced per year. When the clay target is struck, it explodes and scatters pieces to the ground, where they are often abandoned and left to litter the landscape for decades. Rain eventually turns the clay shards into sulfuric acid, imparting harmful toxins into the soil, groundwater, and nearby crops.

A professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing, Joe Greene has a viable design for environmentally safe, biodegradable sporting pigeons using waste fibers from plant materials.

He’s come up with two types of pigeons—one made from rice straw and rice hulls, and another made of almond shell waste—both using corn-based plastic and talc (a mineral) to help the pigeons keep their shape. Both versions should safely biodegrade in about two years and are safe for animals to eat.

With supporting grants from the Rice Research and Almond Research Boards, as well as the CSU’s Agricultural Research Initiative, Greene has worked with six students in the last three years to hone the process and product.

Pulling in four different disciplines—environmental science, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and agriculture—Greene is now working to reduce his product’s cost. Compared to a traditional clay pigeon, which comes in at around 11 cents, he has been able to bring his sustainable pigeons down to about 16 cents and thinks he can shave off a few more pennies. Between 13 and 15 cents each is the sweet spot, he predicts, where a North State company could begin manufacturing and become the first West Coast supplier of sporting pigeons—and ones that don’t harm the environment, as well.

“A beloved pastime should not have lifelong consequences by imparting toxins into our soil. With plant-based pigeons, we can do better.”

Mechanical and mechatronic engineering and sustainable manufacturing professor Joe Greene

LIFE-SAVING NANOPARTICLES

A digital illustration of a woman holding two beakers and conducting an experiment.
Creating human organs out of nanoparticles could be within reach—and could save the lives of those who are on waiting lists for organ transplants.

More than 113,000 people in the United States are currently on waiting lists for organ transplants—and an average of 20 people die every day while waiting to be matched with a donor, according to 2019 data from the US Health Resources and Services Administration. In an attempt to battle this shortage—and potentially save lives—mechanical engineering professor Ozgul Yasar sees an alternative: using nanoparticles to regenerate tissue and build organs or bone.

Tissue engineering, synthetically fabricating and growing tissues on an inorganic foundation known as a scaffold, is on the leading edge of science. In the materials lab in O’Connell Technology Center, Yasar adds nanoparticles to polyethylene glycol diacrylate, a liquid, and exposes the substance to ultraviolet light to solidify it into a tiny cylinder-shaped hydrogel known as a tissue scaffold. Then she and her undergraduate students test the scaffold’s mechanical properties to assess if it can withstand stress by the surrounding tissues where it would be implanted. These extracellular matrices that guide cells to grow three-dimensionally and regenerate the tissues are key to the continued growth of new cells.

Collaborating with the City University of New York for nearly a year, Yasar’s research has yielded promising results. The next step is to embed the nanoparticles into the scaffolds to see if the mechanical properties will improve and cells are able to grow into viable organs.

In addition to funding by a CSU Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity award, a pair of National Science Foundation grants will also bolster Yasar’s research, allowing her to purchase instruments for further development and testing. As major research institutions successfully usher in the era of cell and cartilage growth, the next step in Yasar’s research is to successfully generate bone.

“Designing and engineering scaffolds to grow tissues could solve the growing problem of organ transplant across the world.”

Mechanical engineering professor Ozgul Yasar

VIRTUAL REALITY, PRACTICAL RESULTS

A digital illustration of a young boy wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles and reaching his hand straight out in front of him.
Virtual reality technology is helping to reimagine special education classrooms.

From difficult-to-reach campuses and high teacher turnover to inadequate resources and diminished funding, rural K–12 special education programs across the North State are often underserved and undersourced.

Nowhere is this perhaps more true than access to technology. To help close the gap, School of Education professor Aaron Koch is leveraging a type of virtual reality (VR) known as mixed-reality.

Koch, who formerly taught moderate-severe special education in K–12, is studying how future teachers can create an experience with assistive technology that engages with and empowers special education students while also giving a sense of agency these students traditionally lack.

Digital avatars stand in for human beings and interact with special education students—especially those with autism—so they become more engaged, comfortable, and empowered. Students can practice in virtual scenarios for meetings, conferences, and other face-to-face encounters, so they know what to expect and can minimize surprises. And by tapping a tablet—instead of responding verbally, which excludes students who are nonverbal—students engage in new ways by answering questions and practicing self-advocacy skills.

Meanwhile, VR social skills simulators lead future teachers in learning how best to deliver their lessons, while practicing behavior management skills in real time. They also learn to manage conflict with their staff or their students’ parents.

Chico State is one of four CSU campuses—and the only one north of Northridge—currently using VR technologies in this way. On the brink of launching a pilot study, Koch and his students expect to soon employ this VR research across the North State.

“Virtual reality simulation provides social skills training in a low-stakes setting so special education students can gain more confidence and become empowered.”

Education professor Aaron Koch