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Alumni Spotlight

Inventive new Old Boy Steven Tian ’23 holds two patents.
Currently an electrical engineering student at the University of Toronto, Tian’s active mind is always looking for better ways to accomplish tasks. 

“I’ve always loved problem solving, whether they’re theoretical or real-life problems,” he says. “I also love building things, and engineering is a combination of hands-on activity and solutions.”

While attending Grade 8 in his native China, Tian volunteered as an English teacher for students at a school for the blind and decided he wanted to assist the students in their daily lives. He created a design for an electric guide dog and began by building a LEGO model before connecting with a graduate student at a nearby university who had lab access. They built a functioning prototype and Tian now holds the patent for his design.

In Year 10 at UCC, the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns and Tian found himself using online shopping platforms more regularly. He realized that the method used by grocery stores to fill orders was not very efficient.

“Usually, it meant an employee would go to the store for you and pick through the shelves,” Tian says. “I thought I could improve on the system and base it in the warehouse where an order would be placed online and completed automatically. Ideally, it would then be delivered by drone, but current restrictions won’t allow for that step.”

He worked on the design, going through a few iterations before the U.S. patent office approved it in April 2023. Tian plans to spend his winter break making a prototype, since the one he currently has “isn’t ideal. I did it in the basement.”

It meant building a workshop from scratch, buying a secondhand 3-D printer and a soldering kit, as well as an oscillating multi-tool that he employs mainly for its spin-saw function.

“My prototype was functional, but I feel I could improve it,” Tian says.

Tian is taking a machining course and fabrication lab safety training to improve his skills in preparation for constructing an improved prototype, and he is delighted by the access he has to fabrication tools at U of T. Whether he commercializes the product is still up in the air, although he has given thought to a business plan. First, however, he’ll need to find some extra time to write the plan, which is a challenge, given his busy schedule.

“I have 30 hours of classes and labs weekly, along with assignments,” Tian says. “I’m also the class representative for electrical engineering, which means a lot of extra responsibility and a time commitment.”

And, after being a member of the UCC robotics team, Tian is taking a different tack by joining the U of T design team for human-powered vehicles.

“We’re building a speed bike that can move 150 kilometres per hour, as well as an aircraft that runs on human power,” he says.

With Tian’s ingenuity, anything is possible. 
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