Campus steam plant offers students unique experience

For almost 10 years, the Office of Physical Plant workers at the West Campus Steam Plant have gotten special visitors throughout the spring semester. The guests are upper-level Engineering students getting a first-hand look at a power plant in action.

Professor Gita Talmage said the collaboration with OPP is a one-of-a-kind experience for her students and gives them knowledge that can't be found in a textbook. The course is called Mechanical Engineering 402: Power Plants.

"This course is a rarity (among universities)," she said. "We manage to combine calculations with very practical experience. That level of access is unusual for students, and by the time they complete ME 402, they have a real sense of the plant."

University Park has two power plants. The original West Campus Power Plant was built in the 1930s and is home to a maze of pipes, boilers and coal inventory of approximately 4,500 tons. It sits on the corner of Burrowes Road and College Avenue and supplies steam to more than 200 buildings on campus. The East Campus Power Plant was built in 1972. It's primarily a gas-fired plant and is smaller than its west campus counterpart.

The plants create the steam that keeps students' showers hot and classrooms warm. The steam is pushed out to the buildings where it is converted into hot water and circulated for heat. It's a 24-hour, year-round operation run by about 35 employees.

"The students get to see the whole operation from top to bottom," Hutchison said. "I am able to ask them questions like, 'If this valve failed, what would we do?' They can feel the heat and experience what it's like to work in these conditions."

Hutchison takes the class to the top of the boilers where it can sometimes reach 130 degrees. During the walkthroughs, the students get a full-on immersive experience of life in a steam plant. (Watch the "Sights and Sounds" video of what's it's like to work in the steam plant.)

"I am trying to make these students better engineers, that's my goal," Hutchison said. "I like the fact that I am a part of this unique course and hopefully I can make a difference in how (students) do their jobs in the future."

Talmage treasures the opportunity to share the plant with her students. She said the access to the plant and the level of expertise among technicians is priceless.

"I don’t know how they do it, but they do," she said. "They are truly outstanding teachers. They are my teachers. This course is a dream come true and it's an amazing experience."

The course also provides a unique one-on-one experience for the steam plant workers to meet the students they work so hard for every day. It’s a 400 level course, which Talmage admittedly described as very challenging. When the newly minted engineers finish their semesters, they have hands-on knowledge of a real steam plant for their resumes. They are ready for what's next… full steam ahead.

"I can't say enough about the steam plant and its employees," Talmage said. "They are easy to work with and make this special for me and the students. It's a delight."

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Last Updated May 03, 2011