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Joanna Baranowski’s head is in the game. As an integral member of the “Rethink the Rink” team, led by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Covestro, and CMU’s College of Engineering, she is working to make hockey safer.

“It’s not every day you get to work with the Penguins or a big materials company to do something that nobody else has really done before,” said Baranowski, who is finishing her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering this spring, and her master’s degree this winter.

“Rethink the Rink” focuses on a new project each year. Last year’s project considered safer designs for goalie helmets. In March 2019, CMU hosted a Make-a-Thon where students designed and developed prototypes.


Baranowski and Ian Suzuki, a senior in mechanical engineering, earned internships to work at Covestro’s Pittsburgh location for the summer. Their work built on ideas generated from the Make-a-Thon.

“We worked with the Penguins and a helmet manufacturer to come up with some ideas and concepts on how to make it safer for the goalie when they get hit,” Baranowski said. “We had to consider a lot of constraints, and there was collaboration around the clock.”

We had to consider a lot of constraints, and there was collaboration around the clock.

Joanna Baranowski, Senior, Chemical Engineering

Because the hockey players preferred the look of older helmets, Baranowski’s team worked to minimize the change in the helmet’s appearance while improving safety. They decided that one of the best ways to reduce the impact force on the goalie’s head is to adjust the fastening between the cage and the shell. After modeling the helmet, they simulated collisions, took data, and ran tests on the helmet to develop the best design solution.

As a chemical engineer, Baranowski was challenged to think like a mechanical engineer. To put the helmet into a digital form, she learned to use Solid Works, a 3D modeling software with a complex coding language. She took pictures of a physical helmet, measured various angles and traced details to create the models. Baranowski quickly became a pro at Solid Works and modeled four different helmet styles.

“There have been a couple of times in school when they told us to use a program to produce something, and none of us knew how to do it,” Baranowski said. “CMU has taught me how to learn something quickly—how to pick up something and do it fast and right.”


Baranowski is continuing to learn about materials and design. This year she is working as a research assistant for Bhagyashree Lele, a Ph.D. student in a research group led by Robert Tilton, a professor of chemical engineering. They are studying the properties of silica gels. She also works part-time at Tech Spark, a space that provides CMU students with a variety of facilities and workshops to make their own products.

Baranowski is an athlete herself, competing in the 400- and 100-meter hurdles, the 4x400, and the pole vault for CMU’s women’s track and field team. She also holds the third best time in CMU history for the 400-meter hurdles. She said that being able to look at the problem from both engineering and athletic perspectives was useful.

“I felt I was able to combine two very important perspectives, one as the maker and one as the user. Being an engineer teaches you how to create a solution with a foundation in science, physics, and math,” Baranowski said. “But athletics brings a whole set of emotions to the table. I've dealt with it myself: the nerves, the confidence, the superstitions, the routine. All of those are essential for a performance, and a solution to an engineering problem may not fulfill the deeper need that an athlete must feel unstoppable in whatever equipment they choose.”

Her experience with Covestro has opened up new opportunities and ways of thinking about product design.

“Working with the Covestro experts was so beneficial because everybody was so knowledgeable about all these little things, and everybody had a different set of skills and knowledge and data that we could use,” Baranowski said.