First-year students develop solutions that will clean up vital watersheds

November 30, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To help address the damage caused by agricultural discharge in the United States, first-year engineering students at Penn State have been tasked with designing an agricultural drainage system to filter out contaminants from storm water runoff before it travels to a waterway. The project is supported by Imerys, a world leader in mineral-based specialties for industry.

As a country with more than 330 million acres of cropland and a population of more than 325 million, the United States must efficiently produce quality agricultural goods. To meet demands and yield large amounts of usable produce, farmers use pesticides and fertilizers to protect and preserve crops. During heavy rains, these chemical compounds can end up in runoff water that travels into streams. Once in the streams, they will continue on to rivers, lakes and bays. There, the compounds may lead to eutrophication or an excess of nutrients in a body of water that causes increased growth of plants and algae. When these plants die, they deplete the water of oxygen, causing hypoxia, which creates dead zones where aquatic life can’t survive.

“We are excited to see how students use the engineering design process to come up with an apparatus that will fit the drainage outlets from agricultural fields; be easy to handle and maintain from the farmers’ perspective; and support the filtration technology that Imerys is an expert in,” Claire Theron, transformational external innovation liaison scientist with Imerys, said.

As part of the project, students enrolled in fall 2018 sections of EDSGN 100: Introduction to Engineering Design first identify a representative agricultural field in Pennsylvania and then calculate the discharge rates from its surface drainage ditch and tile drainage systems, as well as the total amount of discharge water. Then, by identifying and combining best management practices with innovative filtration technologies, students design environmentally friendly solutions to decrease waterway sediment and minimize fertilizer and pesticide pollutants. 

“Imerys is working diligently to create positive impacts for the Earth through our minerals and expertise. In this project, we are focusing on clean water, which is critical for the health of people and nature everywhere. By employing our expertise in filtration and combining that with the bright minds of young students and the support of faculty, we are hoping to find some great solutions,” Theron said.

Additional requirements the students must consider in their designs include cost efficiency, the longevity of materials, and the ability to self-monitor. By requiring students to work under real-life project requirements, Theron said client-based projects like this serve as a platform to help students be successful in their future careers. 

“Linking what they learn in class directly to solving an industrial problem is very powerful," Theron said. "Being introduced to how a company addresses technical issues and building that understanding early in their education provides them with much-needed skills for their future careers. The students must learn how to work in teams, how to draw from the diversity in those teams — with respect to background, culture and experience — and to think outside the box. They also learn how to 'attack' what may seem to be a complex problem and learn not to overcomplicate it.” 

Theron said in addition to providing students with real-world experience, client-based projects provide sponsors with access to new ideas and engagement with the next generation of engineers.

“Being there at the start of their education, these students have very open minds and will take diverse approaches to the challenge we are giving them,” Theron said. “It’s never too early to build a relationship with the brightest minds.”

Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs, and professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, adds that SEDTAPP finds its industry clients are always amazed at what its EDSGN 100 students are able to come up with. 

“Perhaps because they are able to look at the design challenges posed through fresh eyes, they are able to find innovative and creative solutions to tough problems,” he said. “By immediately applying what they are learning in EDSGN 100 to an open-ended design challenge, they immediately understand the value in what they are learning as well as understand how engineers design solutions under constraints.” 

The relationship between Imerys and Penn State was kicked off in April of 2018 after Imerys chose Penn State to be their research partner university for North America and a five-year Master Sponsored Research Agreement was signed.

Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of research and industrial partnerships at Penn State, said that since the signing ceremony, dozens of opportunities were found where Penn State expertise in research and education overlaps with Imerys’ business needs. This overlap has resulted in multiple in-progress research projects. 

“In addition to research, Imerys is very interested in building a pipeline of talent for their business, particularly in engineering. They were very excited to sponsor EDSGN 100 this semester and to provide a real-world problem for the students to address,” Fortin said. “Imerys sees EDSGN 100 and other similar opportunities as a great way to further their research agenda while engaging with students. Penn State is very excited to continue to grow our multi-component relationship with Imerys, to include more engagement with students via student projects.”

Final projects will be on display at the College of Engineering Design Showcase, to be held Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Bryce Jordan Center.

For more information about the Design Showcase, please visit the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory website.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 03, 2018