UT students take second place in national engineering competition

Thanvi Thodati

A team of UT-Austin students claimed second place in the PepsiCo/Society of Women Engineers Student Engineering Challenge, impressing a panel of PepsiCo research and development specialists at the Society of Women Engineers WE17 conference on Saturday.

“This annual event encourages undergraduate students to foster their creativity and craft practical solutions in response to some of the most pressing issues in business and science today,” PepsiCo communications manager Trevor Tamsen said in an email.

This year’s challenge required students to submit proposals that addressed water conservation, sustainable packaging and equipment innovations for PepsiCo products, according to Tamsen.

Chemical engineering sophomore Ishani Chakravarty heard about the competition from the Society of Women Engineers and joined fellow chemical engineering sophomores Rafia Muhammad and Avni Halabe and aerospace engineering sophomore Shaurya Gupta to create the team, PepCO2. They designed an innovative vending machine that lets customers choose the desired level of carbonation in their drinks.

“The main idea of carbonating onsite is to save plastic because the bottle doesn’t have to withstand pressure increases during transport … We were able to save 20 percent of the plastic that’s used in bottles for PepsiCo drinks,” Halabe said.

The proposal also included a recycling initiative, offering a 10-cent incentive for every bottle returned to a vending machine, according to Muhammad. While Muhammad, Halabe and Chakravarty worked on the design and calculation aspects, Gupta designed an app with remote ordering and location services and 3-D-printed models of the vending machine parts.

PepCO2 was selected as one of three finalist teams that would present their proposal to a panel of 15 research and development judges from PepsiCo at the WE17 conference, which is one of the largest STEM conferences and career fairs for women engineers and students, according to PepsiCo.

“(The presentation) gave you experience of what you have to face when you’re in industry,” Chakravarty said.

In addition to the presentation and competition, the UT team added that meeting the industry judges offered valuable insight.

“The experience that we got, to interact with industry people for a whole day basically, is not something that people get to do very often,” Muhammad said.

The four sophomores said the WE17 conference overall was an empowering experience.

“It’s just incredible that you have this resource of experiences and people to draw on,” Halabe said.

According the team members, the conference along with organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers made them more aware of gender disparities in their field.

“Because we come from a more equal opportunity background, we can be ignorant to certain things, and I think it’s really important that we learn about what’s going on with other people,” Chakravarty said.

Gupta said that hearing the stories of women engineers at the conference gave the issue of gender discrimination a new sense of reality for him.

“You see discrimination as an abstract thing because it never really affects you, but when you hear it from someone you know, like the judges, or like the speakers, it really hits home,” Gupta said.

The team members added that hearing from women engineers and seeing big companies sponsor events and organizations that support their stories has been an inspiring experience.

“It pushes me to work harder,” Chakravarty said. “Especially in SWE, seeing all of these really motivating stories and how far women have gone, it just makes me want to go even further.”