Skip over navigation

Undergraduate Research Topics 2013-2014

These are descriptions of Thesis and Independent Work projects that have been suggested for the 2013-2014 academic year. The topics are organized by major, and quick links are provided here for easy access. To learn more about any topics, please contact the listed professors.


Chemical and Biological Engineering

  • Collective cell dynamics in wound healing.
    Contact: Prof. Stanislav Shvartsman.
  • Equation-free modeling for complex systems.
    • Application to collective organism motion
    • Dynamics of heterogeneous coupled neurons
    Contact: Prof. Yannis Kevrekidis.

Civil and Environmental Engineering

  • Smart buildings.
  • Active structural control.
  • Control of water resources.
  • Earthquake engineering.
  • Remote sensing.
    Contact: Prof. Sigrid Andriaenssens.

Computer Science

  • The role of simplicity in reasoning by machines.
  • Machine learning, including game playing, photo identification, and semantic identification.
  • Applications of machine learning, such as for game playing or semantic classification of spoken utterances.
  • Detecting all objects of some type (such as faces) in a visual scene.
  • Develop a system combining body-mounted cameras and/or Kinect with tactile or auditory feedback to help blind people avoid obstacles.
  • Use computer-controlled milling machines to fabricate bas-reliefs, using substrates of heterogeneous materials.
  • Adapt a MakerBot or other hobbyist-grade manufacturing device to use multiple materials.
  • Modeling of topics from textual sources.
    Contacts: Prof. Szymon Rusinkiewicz, Robert Schapire, David Blei.

Electrical Engineering

  • Analysis, simulation, and applications of algorithms for pattern recognition and machine learning. Contact: Professor Sanjeev Kulkarni.
  • Algorithms for fusing data and aggregating information from multiple sources. Contact: Professor Sanjeev Kulkarni.
  • Detection and Recognition of Hand Gestures from Video. The goal of this project is to develop algorithms that take as input video from a camera viewing an individual and attempt to recognize some well-defined set of hand gestures made by the individual. This work could potentially have applications to interactive computing and games. Contact: Professor Peter Ramadge.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

  • Uninhabited Air Vehicles. Development of Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAV) is the fastest growing segment of the aerospace industry. UAVs can perform a variety of tasks, including cargo transport, surveillance, and scientific measurement. Advances in sensors, computers, actuators and radio-controlled (R/C) model aircraft enable research on many UAV applications, including the following:
    • UAV Flight in a Controlled Airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration has understandable concern about mixing manned and unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System. in the National Airspace System, including autonomous and cooperative flight. The proposed project will use two or more ready-to-fly, electrically-powered R/C airplanes equipped with iPhone-based guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) systems to explore issues of collision avoidance, formation flying, and coordinated takeoff and landing.
    • Stability and Control of a Tailless Aircraft. While virtually all successful aircraft designs have vertical tails, birds fly quite well without them. The dynamics and control of aircraft without vertical tails are interesting for at least two reasons: aircraft are stealthier without vertical tails, and several accidents have occurred when the vertical tails of conventional aircraft failed. The goal of this project is to design and implement a control system for a tailless aircraft and to compare the motions of an R/C model with and without its vertical tail.
    • Autonomous Submersible Aircraft. The goal of the project is to build a radio- and computer-controlled craft that can fly to a landing on water, swim underwater to photograph an object, return to the surface, and fly to its starting point.   The aircraft will mimic an aquatic bird, such as the cormorant, loon, murre, or common eider.
    • Quadrotor Helicopter for Archeological Study. From Dr. Kate Liszka, "Archaeologists have a need for detailed photographic documentation of their excavations.... Detailed aerial photographs of an archaeological site during excavation are a rare and precious data source for these purposes.... A camera that flies and could be controlled remotely from the ground would solve these problems, produce a greater amount of useful data, and could be marketable to archaeologists around the world." The goal of this project is to design and build a semi-autonomous quadrotor UAV to make precise archeological measurements. Contacts: Dean Peter Bogucki, SEAS, Dr. Kate Liszka, Council of the Humanities.
    • Quadrotor Helicopter for Atmospheric Sampling. From Prof. Gerard Wysocki, ELE, "In the case of single-sampling-point trace-gas monitoring, lack of spatial information makes it impossible to localize specific emission sources (e.g., accidental gas leaks or unauthorized industrial emissions). The deployment of a sensor network will enable continuous spatial trace-gas monitoring of a large geographical area, providing complete static (concentration) and dynamic (fluxes, sources, and sinks) information about target analytes. In one of our current research projects we are developing a low-power, miniature spectroscopic trace-gas sensor for wirelessly communicating distributed sensor networks. Of particular interest in this research effort are ultra-sensitive spectroscopic techniques, application of novel optoelectronic devices, power-efficient electronics for data acquisition and signal processing, and integration at both the device and the system level." The goal of this project is to design and build a semi-autonomous quadrotor UAV to make precise trace-gas measurements. Contacts: Prof. Gerard Wysocki, ELE.
  • In-Flight Operation of Nonintrusive High-Speed Flow Diagnostics. Design of an optical air data system for high speed aircraft. The idea is the integrate nonintrusive diagnostics concepts into a control and data acquisition package for use in hypersonic flight tests. Contact: Prof. Richard Miles.
  • Single- and Multi-Agent Control Laws for Autonomous Submersibles in a Water Tank Testbed. This project will involve low-level control development to create motion primitives and higher level control laws that use these primitives for coordinated control of the multi-vehicle network. MAE 433 is essential. Contact: Prof. Naomi Leonard.
  • Development of Human-in-the-Loop Control Infrastructure and Experiments for Multi-Vehicle Testbed The project will involve design and implementation of software to allow a human operator to observe vehicle performance and define supervisory control. Capability for human operators to remotely located is of great interest. Contact: Prof. Naomi Leonard.
  • Printable Spacecraft. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is investigating the possibility of building miniature spacecraft using 2-D and 3-D printing technology.  From Dr. Kendra Short, JPL, " Imagine editing a design file on your laptop, uploading it to a specialty printer and collecting your spacecraft in the output tray later in the day. Flexible printed electronics have revolutionized consumer products such as cellular phones and PDAs, allowing greater functionality with decreasing size and weight. Perhaps the same can be done for NASA spacecraft. This study will explore the concept of designing and fabricating a spacecraft based entirely on flexible substrate printed electronics. The study will consider mission requirements, manufacturing compatibility and advanced technology from both industry and academia." The goal of this project is to build a prototype for a future planetary mission.
  • Projects of interest to Prof. Jeremy Kasdin. I have a variety of possible projects related to our work developing technology and mission concepts for NASA's planet finding program. Most involve working in our optics laboratory alongside graduate students and postdocs developing control and estimation algorithms or implementing new coronagraph design techniques. I also have some projects related to other NASA and commercial space activities, such as orbital debris removal. Below are a sample of possible project topics.
    • Develop automated alignment and control procedures for controlling low frequency errors in our high-contrast testbed used to test optical concepts for imaging extra-solar planets.
    • Developing an autonomous auto-calibration system for the laser in our high-contrast testbed.
    • Implement new wavefront control concepts using our deformable mirrors and coronagraph testbed.
    • Work with a postdoc implementing an adaptable system for new coronagraph concepts for achieving high contrast imaging. Could include trip to ground telescope for testing and implementation (either in New Mexico, California, or Hawaii)
    • Model and analyze a de-tumbling system to be attached to spent upper stages as part of an orbital debris removal system (joint with a local spacecraft control company).
    • Work with a graduate student to implement a hardware-in-the-loop simulation of the station-keeping control for a large space occulter used for imaging exosolar planets. Involves work at our laboratory at the Forrestal campus.
  • Projects of interest to Prof. Michael Littman.
    • The Joseph Henry Apparatus Project (see .
    • Improvements to the Automated Model Railroad Control System for use in MAE 412 .
    • New Test Stand for Brushless DC Motors for use in MAE 433 Lab .
    • Mechanical Analogue Computer built out of K'NEX.
  • Nanoscale Piezoelectrics. The development of a method for integrating highly efficient energy conversion materials onto stretchable and biocompatible substrates could yield breakthroughs in implantable biomechanical energy harvesting systems. Piezoelectric nanomaterials represent a particularly interesting class of smart materials due to their highly efficient electromechanical coupling. Your role in this project would be to develop new methods for the fabrication of piezoelectric nanomaterials, their integration onto alternative substrates such as stretchable elastomers, and fundamental investigations into enhanced piezoelectric responses under conditions induced by strain and confinement. Contact: Prof. Michael McAlpine.
  • One-Inch Robot. The goal is to build a working robotic arm with end effector that fits within a one-inch cube when stowed, i.e., when not operating. The device will be built using the SEAS 3-D Printer, which can fabricate objects with separately moving components from structural plastic. The robot may use any number of joints and links. From its base joint, which is attached to a fixed plane that is not included in the cube, the end-effector should have a workspace defined by a cylinder or hemisphere with 1.5-in radius at the ground plane. The robot will require sensors, actuators, and an external control computer that allow it to pick and place small objects, such as a grain of sand or a pencil lead.
  • Ecology and the Environment
    • Cooperative Control of Natural and Engineered Groups. This project focuses on the connections between traffic rules and emergent behaviors in animal aggregations such as schools, flocks and herds and control laws for coordinating the behavior of groups of autonomous vehicles for cooperative tasks. It is of particular interest to draw inspiration from foraging strategies in biology for designing algorithms to direct sensor-equipped vehicles to perform as a mobile sensor array. Contact: Prof. Naomi Leonard.
    • Fundamental Studies of Swimming. We have an ongoing program to study the hydrodynamics of manta ray swimming. We are also interested in building an underwater vehicle (UAV) that swims and maneuvers like a manta ray. We have been challenged by the University of Virginia in a contest to build the best manta UAV. One or more students are sought to take up this challenge. The first competition ended up in a draw, and was reported in Science magazine. We would like to do better. Contact: Prof. Alexander Smits.
    • Modelling Insect Locomotion. We are investigating the mechanics of legged locomotion in order both to understand the biological system itself, and to export what we learn to the design of legged robots. We focus on mathematical modeling and analysis of biological aspects. Contact: Prof. Philip Holmes.
  • Biology and Medicine
    • Neural Network Analysis of Colon Cancer Genetics. The immediate aim is to identify relationships between gene expression, primary colon tumors, liver and lung metastases, normal tissue, clinical data, age, gender, and patient outcomes. Your goal is to establish multi-dimensional discriminants that clarify the correlations within a large knowledge base of DNA microarray data. Contact: Prof. Robert Stengel.
    • Controlled Incubator for Triatomine Bugs. From Jennifer Peterson, EEB, "Triatomine bugs spread Chagas disease, a fatal parasitic infection that mostly affects underprivleged communities in Latin America. An important factor in my work with these insects is having the right climatic conditions, and so I am looking to construct a heat and temperature controlled incubator for them. The challenge is that I need to take it with me to Colombia to use there during my field work...." The goal of this project is to design and construct a durable, low-cost, transportable, insect incubator for this biological study. Contacts: Prof. Robert Stengel, Prof. Andrea Graham, EEB, Jennifer Peterson, GS, EEB.
    • BioMEMS and Nanostructures for Disease Detection and Drug Delivery. Bio-micro-electro-mechanical systems (BioMEMS) and coated nano-particles are being developed for the early detection and treatment of diseases such as cancer. The work on bioMEMS involves the development of coating and surface textures that can promote improved adhesion or non-adhesion to biological structures. The work on nanoparticles involves the fuctionalization of injectable magnetic nanoparticles for early detection by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. Some initial transcription concepts are also being developed for the possible treatment of cancer. The goal is to produce a BioMEMS sensor or nano-sensor.
  • Engineering for Humanity. Design and build a prototype for a low-cost device or system that could make the world a better place. Here are some examples:
    • Device that can be used to purify, pump, or transport water in rural villages.
    • Hybrid power generation system that can harness energy from wind, water, or the sun.
    • Prosthetic device for paraplegics or amputees.
    • Device to aid in natural disaster relief.
    • Device to assist emergency medical technicians in accident response.
    • System to curb violence in urban areas.
    • System to combat aquatic invasive species.
  • Robotic Consumer Appliance. Robotic appliances are beginning to make inroads into the consumer product marketplace. Robotic floor care products, such as vacuums and sweepers have obtained large market shares and revenues. The current project will be to investigate the potential of a robot to significantly aid in the performance of routine daily household tasks. The specific product will be determined by consultation with the advisor. The application will be chosen based on several criteria, including potential consumer acceptance and marketability of the product, and the ability to create a demonstrable prototype within the timeframe of the project. Emphasis will be placed on products that will have retail price-points below $100. Particular attention will be focused on human-robot and robot-environment interaction along with intuitive user interface design and autonomous robotic-appliance operation. Products which demonstrate the potential for consumer acceptance will have the opportunity to be subjected to possible commercialization, initially through product test marketing. Contact: Prof. Daniel Nosenchuck.
  • Tiger Challenge Projects. Build a robot that will:
    • Navigate the E-Quad courtyard.
    • Navigate down and up a valley (e.g., near the E-Quad H wing).
    • Be based on the JPL ATHLETE Rover 6-legged/wheel configuration and will travel over obstacles.
    • Navigate the P-Rade autonomously.
    • Fly across Lake Carnegie to a specific spot, retrieve an object, and return to base.
    • Distinguish a peach from an apple, and slice it.
    • Fry an easy-over egg (with flip).
    • Solve a Rubik's cube.
    • Make a field goal from 30-yd out.
    • Find a hidden object in Nassau Hall.
    • Drive from the E-Quad to a dorm/eating club autonomously.
    • Find a book on an Engineering Library shelf, starting at the checkout desk.
    • Hit a home run from an automatic pitcher.
    • Make a 3-pt basketball shot.
    • Perform the basic ballet positions in arbitrary order.
    • Do a credible Michael Jackson Slide.
    • Paddle a canoe or row a shell in a straight line.
    • Ditto for an 8-person crew.
    • Play the trumpet.
    • Climb to the top of the Fine Hall Tower, no recharges.
    • Chug a glass of water ASAP, no splashing.
    • Find a particular word in a hardbound book.
    • Paint a picture.
    • Look like a Canada goose and interact socially with live Canada geese.
    • Throw and catch a boomerang/frisbee.
    • Compose a poem about the SEAS in iambic pentameter.
    • Capture the 3 main points in a book page of history.

Operations Research and Financial Engineering

  • Automated Ground Vehicles. A vehicle to drive in an urban environment, completely autonomously, avoiding obstacles and finding its own way. There are many ways to contribute to this project, from low-level control of the vehicle, to integrating information from various sensors.
  • Automated highways.
  • Intelligent transportation systems.
    Contact: Prof. Alain Kornhauser.


    Contact: Prof. Gilbert Harman.


  • Inference, reasoning, problem solving.
  • Aggregating the opinions of diverse judges into a coherent whole. People are often called upon to issue probabilistic forecasts of future events, e.g., the probability that the NASDAQ will rise tomorrow is 65 percent or the probability that at least one Wall Street composite index will rise tomorrow is 55 percent. When many people issue such forecasts, aggregating them all can lead to probabilistic incoherence. For example, we cannot accept both the judgments, since the second implies that the event cited in the first has an inconsistent probability of at least 65 percent. To profit from the opinions of many forecasters, it is necessary to modify some of the judgments in order to reach internal coherence. How to do this with big data sets is a computational challenge. Moreover, different strategies have different consequences for the quality of forecasts. A senior thesis might consist in constructing a large corpus of forecasts and using it to test one or more coherence algorithms. Stock markets around the world could be used as artificial judges providing estimates for various events. Contact: Prof. Dan Osherson.
  • Modeling or System Identification on the Human Motor System.. Arguably, humans are equipped with the most advanced motor system on the planet. We possess a remarkable ability to learn new motor skills and retain memories for those skills throughout life, such as riding a bicycle. The ease with which we perform these skills belies their overwhelming computational complexity. At present, we know very little about how the brain performs these computations. Understanding how the brain controls movement will not only help restore function following neurological insult, but also may provide insight into designing better robots and machines. A senior thesis might focus on designing biologically-valid control systems to simulate human movement and skill acquisition. Contact: Prof. Jordan Taylor.
  • Neuroscience
    • Neural Network Modeling of Cognitive Functions. Several members of the psychology department are engaged in the construction of computational models that seek to simulate cognitive function. These are cast at many levels, from symbolic models that attempt to capture higher level cognitive processes such as reasoning and problem solving, to neural network models that target a more detailed understanding of how such processes are implemented in the brain. Faculty involved in such work include Jonathan Cohen (neural network models of attention, decision making and cognitive control) and Ken Norman (neural network models of encoding and retrieval from long term memory). Mathematical modeling also is being carried out by Prof. Philip Holmes. Students interested in any of these topics should contact the appropriate faculty member.
    • Brain Imaging of Cognitive Function. Faculty in Psychology, in collaboration with faculty in other departments and the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior (CSBMB), are actively involved in the development of new methods for the acquisition and analysis of brain imaging data, and their use for deepening our understanding of the neural bases of cognitive functions. Imaging modalities include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and event-related scalp electrical recordings (ERPs), in conjunction with other physiological and behavioral data, such as eye movements, pupilometry, and galvanic skin resistance. These data are used to guide and constrain the development of theories regarding the brain mechanisms underlying cognitive processes such as visual perception, attention, memory, and cognitive control. New methods for studying brain function are under development (such as the integration of virtual reality apparatus with the fMRI scanner), as are advanced methods of image analysis, involving the use of multiresolution temporal techniques (such as wavelet transformations) and blind source separation (such as independent components analysis). Contact: Prof. Jonathan Cohen.
    • Visual perception.
      Contact: Prof. Jonathan Cohen.