Water treatment plant model brings departments together, creates outreach opportunities
When the Senior Design Showcase begins on April 27, the first thing most visitors will see won’t be inside the East Stadium club level at Memorial Stadium.
Instead, it will be outside the entrance to the historic football stadium.
Students from two departments – civil engineering and electrical and computer engineering – will be demonstrating a working model of a water treatment plant, culminating a unique, yearlong multidisciplinary project that could create opportunities for engineering outreach and new senior design capstone formats.
George Hunt, assistant professor of practice and the senior design capstone instructor in civil engineering on Scott Campus, was inspired to propose this as a capstone project when he saw a similar model being demonstrated at a national conference.
“There was one at the Water Environment Federation WEFTEC conference, and I got to thinking I’d sure like to build something like this at Nebraska, because we could take it all over – elementary schools, our local NRD Water Days, things like that,” Hunt said.
“This is a Civil Engineering Department pilot project, a test case,” Hunt said. “We are trying to rethink the ways we do senior design.”
Currently, the civil engineering capstone is a single-semester, mostly on-paper design project that each student team does. This year’s project for the department’s Scott Campus students is designing a softball complex for the City of Yutan.
Hunt asked his senior design students if they’d be willing to take part. Derek Nelsen and Isaac Knutson volunteered.
He also approached ECE capstone teacher Herbert Detloff about finding a pair of students who’d be willing to collaborate on the project as their capstone project and was assigned Jacob Eckstrom and John Strudl.
From the beginning, the interdisciplinary collaborations were new for the students.
“Before this class, I didn’t have any idea of the things civil engineers were doing,” Strudl said. “I knew nothing about water treatment. Now, I understand all the stages of the process and why they’re there.”
Even for the civil engineering students, the building process was new.
“Finding the right tools and processes was a trick. None of us had ever glued something like this together, and we needed a welder to put the mixing paddles together,” Nelsen said. “We had to all figure that all out.”
It was also a challenge for Hunt, who was not used to this type of format.
“I don’t really work on the construction side of engineering, I typically do design work and computer modeling,” Hunt said, laughing. “I really have to tip my hat to this crew, they really put everything together.”
One of the trickiest parts of completing the project was finding a way to calibrate the various tanks in the model and get the desired turbidity measurements in each stage.
In the first stage of the process, dirty, murky water is pumped into a tank where slow spinning paddles move it around. There, the engineers wanted to analyze the water but couldn’t afford a ready-made system.
Electrical engineer Strudl came up with a light-emitting diode that shoots a ray of infrared light through the water and into a sensor diagonally across a corner of the tank. The sensor then analyzes the properties of the light to determine the level of turbidity.
“That’s a real innovative piece of engineering design,” Hunt said. “That’s something to be proud of because it shows real creativity.”
Strudl said he was inspired by his experience in electronic circuits courses – where they made a laser radio that transmits soundwaves through the laser, which are then changed, and picks them up on the other side and converts them into sound.
“In that respect, this light system is pretty new,” Strudl said. “Building that radio was so much easier because they gave us all instructions and we just put it together. You don’t have to design that, but this was all our design.”
Those successes and getting to debut the model at the Senior Design Showcase are things the team is proud of, but there are lasting benefits they will carry into their careers, Eckstrom said.
“Being able to determine what we wanted to do and how to do it and then seeing it through the whole way, that is so important,” Eckstrom said. “We now know we can get a project like this done and get it done right.”
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