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McCormick Students Tackle Environmental Issues

February 28, 2006 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Locally and internationally Northwestern University’s engineering students are making a difference in people’s lives.

Designing innovative solutions to real-world problems -- from fossil-fuel energy dependence to water pollution -- they are putting into practice theories they’ve learned through courses in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Institute for Design Engineering and Applications (IDEA).

The students, including several members of Northwestern’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), are enrolled this winter and spring in an IDEA course on Interdisciplinary Design, team-taught by, among others, J. Edward Colgate, director of IDEA and professor of mechanical engineering, and Ann McKenna, associate director of design education for IDEA and research assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of education.

Nationally, ESW membership numbers more than 3,000 professionals and students. The organization is dedicated to reducing poverty and improving living conditions in communities in which basic resources of water, energy and sanitation are compromised. McCormick senior Anita Budhraja, a founding member of Northwestern’s chapter and its current president, says that local membership numbers 24 students and faculty, including faculty advisors Randall Snurr and Joseph Fitzpatrick.

“Interest in the organization spreads through word of mouth,” says Budhraja, a mechanical engineering major. “Students have become aware of us through the annual Energy Day @ NU and our local school outreach program.

“We also work with international communities,” says Budhraja, who with other ESW-Northwestern members traveled to Costa Rica in 2004 to participate in Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village volunteer program.

In spring 2005 ESW members started communicating with nongovernmental organizations in Panama that identified community problems relating to engineering issues. Subsequently four Northwestern engineering students -- Dave Dunkman, Aaron Greco, Jennie Kessler and Debra Weissman -- traveled to Panama in December. They identified problems they felt they could solve through engineering design: wastewater treatment in the former Spanish colonial town of Portobelo and a solar recharge system in Santo Domingo, says John Romankiewicz, project coordinator and a senior materials science and engineering major.

Because Portobelo has only one facility for treating wastewater and no centralized sewage treatment system, raw sewage runs through the town and into the bay, says Greco, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

Santo Domingo is a rural ranching community, where cattle are protected from wild animal attacks by electrical fences powered by car batteries. To recharge the batteries, ranchers rely on members of a local nonprofit organization to transport the batteries to Panama City, a four-hour trip by car.

Solving these problems is the goal of the IDEA class. One four-person team is working to design a cost-effective, easy-to-maintain and replicable wastewater treatment system for Portobelo. Another team is designing a central solar-powered battery recharging center for Santo Domingo.

A third project is local: designing and building a campus shuttle stop out of recycled and environmentally friendly materials.

“The ESW projects bring a valuable dimension to our interdisciplinary design work within IDEA,” says McKenna. “They provide an opportunity for our engineering students to gain an international perspective on design and to address global issues relating to sustainability. Students working on the ESW projects have the potential to make real contributions to the economic and environmental health of the developing world.”

With seed money and support from McCormick Dean Julio Ottino, ESW students will return to Panama this summer to implement their projects. “I’m excited by student initiatives that address the basic needs of people in underdeveloped countries; I think it’s important to support them,” says Ottino.

Topics: People