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Sound Engineering: Hands-on sustainability

The new Wisconsin Make Sustainability course offered through the UW-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is more than just a convergence of two buzzwords. In the course, students from several different majors are challenged not only to build hands-on projects, but also to consider the concept of “sustainability” with a great deal of nuance. In the fall 2013 semester, one group in the class built a self-contained hydroponic greenhouse, and another built a “greywater” system that recycles water from the shower into a toilet tank. Hear more about the class on this edition of the Sound Engineering podcast.

Scott Gordon: The undergraduates in the new Wisconsin Make Sustainability course at UW-Madison are finding that the more they work on sustainable products, the more complex the idea of sustainability becomes. In the course, offered through the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, students are challenged to go beyond simply designing products that will save a little electricity or cut down on waste. Their design projects need to be things that people in the real world can start using in short order. Electrical and computer engineering undergrads Sarah Murphy and Nathan Little are part of a team that is developing a self-contained hydroponic greenhouse.

Sarah Murphy: We’re going to probably focus on the energy saving that the lights can permit, as well as the lack of transport that our product needs. You don’t have to import your vegetables from all over the world. You can get them straight from your kitchen, and so you won’t have nearly as much fossil fuels used in transportation.

Nathan Little: And then, another aspect of it is sustainability of health. If you have better-tasting vegetables and fresh vegetables, I think people are more likely to eat them. If you’re growing them in your own home and you reach right next to the fridge and grab a head of lettuce, it’s easier to make better choices health-wise. Some of the things we’ve talked about in the class are sustaining education and knowledge—how to keep passing down everything we’ve known so far to generation after generation—and sustainability of health and nutrition like I touched on, as well as how are we going to provide all the energy that’s needed once fossil fuels run out, or become so low that they’re too expensive to use.

Scott Gordon: Even within one project, it turns out there are a lot of different kinds of sustainability to consider. Murphy and Little and their teammates had to balance food and health concerns with energy conservation. This meant venturing into the rather uncharted territory of using LEDs for grow lights.

Sarah Murphy: At first our focus was sustainable food, and then the lights became another factor.

Nathan Little: We considered using high-pressure sodium or T-5 fluorescents—other common lights for plant growth. The average cost for a plant was just so absurd that it was never practical.

Scott Gordon: Another student on the team, biological systems engineering senior Kelly Kayser, said that practical concerns prompted some of the biggest changes in the project.

Kelly Kayser: We started off in a completely different spot. We started with soil and bigger—we started off with a refrigerator-sized and it’s just not realistic. Soil’s not really realistic, either, to make it user-friendly. We’ve changed it to make it more geared towards the consumer and possibly a school, which we’re leaning towards for next semester, I think. It’s definitely changed a lot, but I think in a good way.

Scott Gordon: The course is lead by ECE professor Giri Venkataramanan, School of Education professor Erica Halverson, and physics professor Duncan Carlsmith. It welcomes students from across UW-Madison, and currently has business and landscape architecture students working alongside electrical and mechanical engineering students. Tyler Graf, a mechanical engineering grad student and a TA for the class, says the course is meant to challenge students to develop a more complete definition of sustainability.

Tyler Graf: As engineers, or whatever aspect you are, even the business aspect, will be part of some sort of making process. I don’t mean “making” in the buzzword way. We will be making a service, we’ll be producing something. Looking at the entire realm of what you’re making, the entire production process, and even considering sustainability as a metric you go by—not just functionality, like how fast will plants grow or how much money will it save, but also looking at what impact are we going to make globally, locally, whatever it is, and is it sustainable or not? Use that as almost a metric to think about as we make things and produce things over the course of our careers. If you look at the global economy, that is not a metric that we on average look at.

Scott Gordon: For more information on the course, visit the ECE homepage.

Scott Gordon