SAC engineering students finalists in national STEM competition

May 26, 2022

Office of Marketing & Strategic Communication

Two SAC engineering students are on their way to Washington as finalists in a national STEM competition.

Cheyenne Valles and Rebecca “Bex” West, both sophomores, created a winning proposal for software that allows any device with a camera to detect and monitor seizures based on eye movements.

They are among 12 finalist teams advancing to the final round of the Community College Innovation Challenge, a national competition for students using science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve real-world problems. The challenge is led by the American Association of Community Colleges in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

The two will travel to Washington in June to attend a boot camp providing students with entrepreneurial skills to advance their ideas.

Valles said their idea would have helped her when she was younger. She grew up with absence seizures, which produced hard-to-detect symptoms such as staring into space and freezing in place. She wasn’t diagnosed until she was hospitalized when a soccer ball hit her during a seizure.

Eye movement is common to almost all seizures, Valles said, and was the key to her own diagnosis.

“I wish I could have given this to my younger self,” Valles said. “If I would have had this software through my webcam on my PlayStation I would have been diagnosed earlier.”

The two classmates were inspired to enter the competition by their professor and team mentor, Dr. Henry Griffith, who came to SAC in March as an assistant professor and program coordinator in the engineering department. Griffith has led multiple projects focused on eye-tracking technology for health assessments and other applications.

“Physicians often call the eyes ‘the windows to the brain,’” Griffith said. “They provide information about how well our brain is working based on how you move your eyes. A lot of next-generation technology, such as smart glasses, will have eye movement sensors embedded in them.”

While Griffith introduced the two to the possibilities of tracking eye movement, the students developed the idea to create a tool for people suffering from seizures. Their innovation would take eye movement tracking technology from a clinical setting, where it is currently used, to allow patients to use it at home.

Valles is majoring in astrophysics with a minor in engineering. After graduating from SAC in May 2022, she will continue her education at UTSA to pursue her long-term goal of working for NASA.

West will graduate next year and pursue a bachelor’s degree at UTSA. She started at SAC with a plan to go into nursing, but her passion for math led her to switch to engineering.

Both are committed to bringing their idea to market. In the final round of competition in Washington, they’ll present a poster on their product in hopes of winning the contest’s cash prize. Regardless of the outcome, “the trajectory doesn’t change,” West said.

“With or without the competition, we’re moving forward,” she said. “We can totally do this. With engineering, the sky is the limit, and we are definitely on board with that.”