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Spring 2019

On Henry Mall

A digitally rendered image of a solar-powered bioreactor designed to remove phosphorus from lakes. The 7-by-12-foot system takes in water as it floats on the surface of the lake. The water is pumped to the top of the bioreactor and then flows through a series of containers filled with switchgrass, alfalfa, and duckweed. The plants strip some of the phosphorus from the water before it is further filtered through a series of alum-filled trays and then released back into the lake.

A bioreactor that removes phosphorus from lakes, an easy-to-use harness system designed to prevent falls from dangerous heights, and an early detection sensor for toxic nitrogen dioxide gas in vertical silos. Three very different design projects, three potential responses to real-world issues. And all of them were developed by CALS students as part of their capstone practicum in biological systems engineering (BSE).

A requirement for all BSE majors, the design practicum is comprised of two courses that meet during two consecutive semesters. The most recent practicum finished in fall 2018.

In the first semester of each practicum, students form teams focused on a particular problem. Together, they study the problem, review past efforts to solve it (including any existing patents), and improve their understanding of safety standards. During the second semester, the teams put their research to use designing products that provide practical solutions.

“Businesses, faculty, and [Division of] Extension colleagues submit suggestions for problems that are in need of an engineering-based solution,” says John Shutske, professor of biological systems engineering and an agricultural safety extension specialist. “The solutions are developed by BSE students. The work they do in these courses mirrors what they would do in an engineering design business.”

Design teams are self-directed but meet regularly throughout the practicum with a faculty advisor. The teams set their schedules and assign tasks as they would in a typical workplace.

“This class is the closest you’re going to get to a real-world experience while still in school,” says Xavier Santana BSx’19. He’s part of a five-person team that developed a phosphorous-removing bioreactor to help clean up the Yahara River Watershed. “Just like a real-world project, we can’t just go out and make stuff — there’s research about the project that needs to be done, including learning what’s already out there and what’s already been tried.”

One of Santana’s project teammates, Jacob Olson BS’18, notes that “research also includes finding out what materials and design elements are readily available so parts don’t have to be custom made, which helps to keep costs down.” He also emphasizes the importance of reviewing safety standards in designing a product to ensure that “everything is up to code and even overdesigned to withstand whatever comes its way.”

Santana and Olson’s team knew they needed to create a system that is both easy to maintain and more cost effective than a water treatment plant. Faculty advisor Rebecca Larson, associate professor of biological systems engineering and extension biowaste specialist, says this project also provides students with opportunities to learn how to engage others in science-based conversations about a policy topic.

“Improving surface water quality includes discussing issues related to excess nutrients, how those enter the water system, and how to design technologies that are cost effective and sustainable,” says Larson. “These discussions can include a multitude of people, including elected officials, farmers, landowners, lake association representatives, and county extension agents. Listening to these stakeholders and getting buy-in is important in learning the context of the issue and applying the design.”

Another important aspect of the course is creating and maintaining engineering design notebooks that document the team’s research and design process. This protocol not only keeps the project organized but also provides documentation if the students choose to patent their project.

“Unless there is a prior agreement with the stakeholder who suggested the project, students own the intellectual property rights to their designs,” Shutske says.

For some design projects, rather than reinventing the wheel, teams modify existing designs to improve results. “Our design teams may be that fresh set of eyes that provides a better solution,” Shutske says.

“[The practicum] pulls everything together that we’ve been studying over the years,” says Parker Williams BS’18, part of the design team that worked on a safety harness system. “We can pick out bits and pieces from other classes and put it to practical use.”

While students use knowledge from previous courses and input from their faculty advisors, feedback from team members is also key. “Even though we’re all at the same level of experience, we’re all each other’s teachers,” says Sarah Nagel BSx’19.

As part of the design process, students meet with the stakeholders who originally submitted the problem they are trying to solve. The stakeholders offer feedback in the initial project stages and attend a student presentation of the final product design.

“While the focus of the practicum is to interweave the knowledge gained in courses throughout their college years, we also want to include elements of professional development to prepare students for their next steps after graduation,” Shutske says. “Throughout the capstone practicum, students learn about working together and building relationships, which are transferrable life skills for whatever they do post-graduation.”