University of Colorado freshman Sarah Levine started playing the violin when she was 2 years old and, like many of the women in her family, she has perfect pitch and is able to correctly identify any given musical note.

Her discerning ear combined with engineering skills has helped guide a team of students as they've created and programmed an educational toy to help people develop better pitch recognition. The light-up piano toy Levine's team created will be among dozens of student engineering projects presented today at the annual Engineering Design Expo.

More than 350 engineering students at CU will demonstrate their innovations and inventions at the community event, which is from noon to 3 p.m. at the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory, located on campus at Regent Drive and Colorado Avenue.

"I think the feedback from kids will be great," Levine said of the mini piano that lights up and chirps musical notes. "And from our neighbors, it will be annoyance."

The musical toy is not just for kids.

Hayden Holliman, a CU freshman on the engineering team, said the invention has been helpful, as he's simultaneously learning to play the guitar.

A total of 74 team projects will be demonstrated at the expo, including those created by students in the first-year engineering projects course as well as projects by seniors.

Engineering educators at CU said the hands-on projects course for freshmen is a great way to get students -- some who may be deterred by more conceptual courses -- to stick with engineering as a major.

Senior instructor Derek Reamon said the school has researched the effect of the first-year course on students' retention rate and found that it can boost graduation rates by as much as 20 percent. The class is especially effective among female and under-represented minority students, he said.

Other designs that will be showcased at the invention convention include an educational science exhibit illustrating physics concepts to elementary-age kids and devices designed to assist people with disabilities.

 Kevin Martin, a freshman in mechanical engineering, works on his project for Saturday’s Design Expo at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Kevin Martin, a freshman in mechanical engineering, works on his project for Saturday's Design Expo at the University of Colorado in Boulder. ( MARK LEFFINGWELL )

Students Kimberlee Ott and Angela Kwak have spent the semester working with a fourth-grader who has limited joint mobility problems, designing a uni-directional microphone so the girl can better participate in class. Now, the software the girl uses is designed for adults and doesn't do a good enough job canceling out background classroom noise or picking up her softer voice.

Assistant Professor Lupita Montoya tasked her students with creating sustainable water systems in a rural community in Peru. Last year, some of her students designed and developed a solar-water heater for a school in Langui, Peru, so that warm showers could be available to the schoolchildren. A few of the CU students traveled with Montoya to set up the system.

This year, Montoya's students were working on water purification systems. One team dug a bicycle out of a Dumpster to refurbish it into a stationary bike capable of creating electricity when it's pedaled. It could potentially power a pump to move water, or generate electricity for LED lighting.

Volunteers from industry, government and the community will serve as judges, rating each project on its originality and craftsmanship, as well as the students' understanding of engineering principles, presentation and effectiveness.

An awards ceremony will be held at 3 p.m. Members of the community can vote for their favorite project to win the "People's Choice" award.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or