Engineering design project focuses on climate change and sustainability

Tessa M. Woodring
April 24, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Engineering Design (EDSGN 100) students have been tasked with helping to address climate change by designing solutions that could improve sustainability at Penn State and in the communities that surround it. 

Midway through each semester, the faculty teaching EDSGN 100, housed in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) in the Penn State College of Engineering, kick off their Client-Driven Design Project. With the recent shift to all-online courses for students, this semester’s project has required the students to change up their usual methods. Instead of conducting in-person interviews and scheduling field trips to visit local stakeholders, students are using virtual research, virtual tours and phone and video interviews to further explore the design project’s prompts. 

“Our engineering design students really learn the design process when they apply it to real-world challenges,” said Sven Bilén, head of SEDTAPP and professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering. “All the more so this semester as they’ve been thrust into working together virtually and having to do remote research. This is part of their future, working collaboratively and virtually with distributed design teams located all around the world. So, in a very real sense, this added dimension to the project is better preparing them for the work world they will enter.” 

This semester’s Client-Driven Design Project is an extension of a recent collaboration between Penn State and Project Drawdown. According to the Project Drawdown website, their mission is to help the world reach “Drawdown” — the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to decline, potentially mitigating climate change. Project Drawdown partners with 30 universities in 18 U.S. states and works with researchers to identify, research and model the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. 

The partnership between Penn State and Project Drawdown first started in 2019. During the summer of 2019, SEDTAPP faculty hosted six Drawdown Scholars as part of the Penn State Drawdown Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program. These scholars focused on incorporating sustainability into first-year engineering curricula, and their work served as the springboard for the project taking place this semester.

This semester’s EDSGN 100 project focuses on sustainability and how it can be improved to positively impact “Drawdown.” Students are tasked with exploring and designing a sustainability solution that is related to one of six design prompts: hunger and food production; materials and waste; energy grid; renewable energy; high-performance buildings; and bike-friendly cities. 

“While these challenges exist at the global scale, the students have been asked to explore the challenge in their local communities — Penn State or Centre County — supporting Penn State’s mission to integrate sustainability into teaching, research and service,” said Sarah Ritter, associate teaching professor of engineering design and EDSGN 100 course chair. “By localizing the context and providing multiple design prompts, I believe that the project resonates with many of the students and encourages them to reflect on sustainability in a new way.”

The students have chosen their design prompts and are working to understand existing sustainability inconsistencies and current methods for addressing those issues by identifying relevant stakeholders, such as a local food bank or recycling center. Students are then exploring opportunities for sustainability solutions using virtual research and interviews with stakeholders. By pinpointing the stakeholders’ specific needs, students then select, model and analyze the best concept or system of concepts to promote sustainability. As an important last step of this project, students will assess the impact of their selected design on human well-being, the environment and the economy. 

“The nature of this project — a complex, open-ended problem — demands a big-picture, or systems, perspective of the design opportunity identified by the student teams,” Ritter said. “We are asking the students to explore the interconnections of human well-being, ecological health, available technologies, as well as factors associated with adoption, such as regulatory, cost and ethical considerations.”

To build their solutions, students will use numerous design tools, such as systems diagrams, life-cycle assessments, concept maps and digital prototyping.

“The design tools that students will utilize and, more broadly, this way of thinking, will be useful to the students throughout their remaining coursework and beyond,” Ritter said. 

With the shift to online learning, both students and the EDSGN 100 faculty have had to make adjustments for this project and the course as a whole. According to Ritter, the EDSGN 100 faculty meet on a weekly basis to share experiences and class activities as well as discuss success stories on engaging and supporting their students. 

“In the transition to remote course delivery, there has been constant support from the department, college and University to provide access to resources and share best practices,” Ritter said. 

Winning projects from each EDSGN 100 section, selected by people’s choice, will be exhibited as part of the Virtual Project Showcase, which will be held from Thursday, April 30, to Friday, May 8, online.

 

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Last Updated April 27, 2020