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Appreciating the middle ages

The Environmental lab never looked so colorful and full of laughs and energy as it did on Wed, Aug 3, 2016. ms1Fourteen middle schoolers, participating in NU’s Girls Inventors Camp spent the morning with me learning to build water filters. They came from a few different towns near Northfield and scaled from sixth through ninth grades. Their personalities were just as diverse as the many physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of water that we discussed.

ms2With a limited amount of gravel, sand, activated carbon, and geotextile fabric, their challenge was to design and build a filter to treat some “gross”, “yucky”, “stinky”, “swamp water” (tap water with some garden soil, leaves and twigs, with a tiny drop of red food coloring) to almost clear quality, at a flow rate of about 0.56 ml/s (they had to collect 100 ml of filtered water in three minutes or less). ms4To do this, they had to first develop their concept sketches. These turned out so colorful, with appropriate headings, legend, and everything labeled using the correct terminology! ms3They then decided on the amount of media they would use in the order these design depicted, put on some gloves and got building. Every team met the flow rate challenge, but almost everyone had a pink tinge still left over in their filtered water. They knew that activated carbon was the primary component that could fix this color issue, so…

Every team had the opportunity to re-design their filters.ms5

 

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They had to develop a new concept sketch, and note what changes were made and why. These second filtered samples turned out less pink than the previous, but now there was a serious commitment to get the color out. There were several creative solutions that emerged. Run the filtered water through the filter 13 ms8times, repeat layers of activated carbon in the filter, leave the filtered water in a separate beaker of activated carbon for a while, fill the entire filter casing with as much media as possible, so even though flow rate suffered in some cases, the final effluent looked ms7a LOT less pink – almost clear!

We had a lot of discussions along the way – the challenges of today, how they are already changing the world now, and how they will in 10 years, where does our water come from, why should we care, what do engineers do…We talked about using the right terminology to explain our work, learnt that it is ok to be nervous when presenting in front of an audience, and practiced our power poses.

Finally, we built a crude sand and gravel filter in a plastic cup and walked with these and a water sampler down to the Dog River across the rugby field on campus, stood on the bridge, watched fish swim by, collected some water, ran it through our make shift filters and walked back. The sun was hot, everyone was hungry and sweaty, but in my books – it was a morning well spent. I hope the girls felt the same way. I hope I see some of them in my classroom one day…

Photo credit: Mark Collier, Norwich Photography

 

 

A packed summer

The life of an academic is unique in that it is more a way of life than a profession. In practically every trip I was on this summer, and this was my summer of a LOT of travel, especially road trips across familiar and unfamiliar parts of the country, and there wasn’t a place where I did not find a connection with something I teach, something my students would love, something I could research, something I could write about. I believe that this just makes the experience that much richer.propeller

At the Albacore museum, I had to take close-ups of the submarine propellers to share in my Fluids class, at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s Science Museum, I snapped a lot of pictures of their rock collections, because I loved how they had organized their collection – perfect for my Hydrogeology course, the Omaha Children’s Museum had a detailed model of a reverse osmosis water treatment system – just right for the water and wastewater treatment course.rocks

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Finally, there was almost a continuous stream of ideas for my environmental engineering course – from the Colorado State Capitol – the first LEED certified Capitol in the country to the naturally carbonated mineral spring waters of Manitou Springs to faulty water meters that allowed the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota to receive five years of free water (worth almost $9, 000), to looking at algae blooms across several water bodies along the coast of Maine.

co_capitolEven my first real touristy trip to Montreal, complete with the hop on hop off experience was heightened whenthe tour guide mentioned that much of the green space in the city had been designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City and who was the subject of a research paper of a student in my Honors class on Sustainability last spring.

All geekiness aside, the two biggest highlights for me were getting to hang out with family and being able to revisit Acadia National Park, which is starting to become one of my most favorite places. acadia

 

I’m an ExCEEd mentor!

I will be forever indebted to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE’s) Excellence in Civil Engineering Education (ExCEEd) workshops. These are designed to help new Civil engineering faculty become better at a craft that few of us are trained for – teaching engineering. We earn our PhDs and become subject matter experts, but very few of us really learn how to teach. ExCEEd changed that for me.

As a participant in the summer of 2013, I was introduced to a model instructional strategy and provided ample guidance and tools on applying it. I was mesmerized by demonstration classes taught by master teachers who transformed both the classroom as well as the topic of Statics that they were teaching before my eyes. No topic was too small (how to write on a chalkboard/whiteboard) or too big (you can create drama as well as use models and demonstrations to explain engineering concepts and principles) for these instructors and mentors.

Best of all, my own mentor Dr. Brock Barry of USMA and assistant mentor Dr. Pinar Omur-Ozbek helped each person in our small team develop our practice classes, videotaped us teaching these classes, provided the most comprehensive feedback any of us had ever received on our teaching and helped us all improve and become better teachers. In the past two years, I returned to ExCEEd as an assistant mentor and continued learning from the legends of ExCEEd, I was assigned to work with.

Then this year I was assigned to be a mentor. What an incredible experience that was! I am so grateful to everyone at ASCE who believed I could do this, but am even more grateful that my team believed in me. They took up every challenge, my assistant mentor Brett Tempest and I threw at them, set aside their personal lives, and work lives, and worked so hard to apply the ExCEEd model in their three practice classes. They tossed out PowerPoint and engaged their class with questions, models, activities, and added music, drama and props and truly transformed their classrooms across their three classes. One of them even threw me a challenge, which I’m happy to say I took up, thus continuing with my own learning as well.

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Two more exciting highlights of this particular ExCEEd had to do with the fact that I got to spend the whole week at West Point with beautiful views of the Hudson and got to meet and spend some time with ASCE’s President Elect, Norma Jean Mattei.

exceed1Bottom line: I love teaching even more. I love knowing that I am doing what I love doing. Teaching. Researching, and weaving it back into my teaching.

 

Summer 2016 begins with a splash!

On May 20-21, Norwich co-hosted the first Resilient Vermont Conference with the Institute of Sustainable Communities (ISC). This event brought a lot of people across the state, involved in climate related work to campus. tk_rvtconference1

The story about the event itself is elsewhere, but this reflection is about the fact that I learnt at least as much, as a part of the organizing team, as I did from the conference itself.

They were completely different kinds of lessons, but truly the kinds of things I hope I emphasize enough in my classes, especially as stud052016-resilient-vermont-190ents engage in service-learning projects and work with community members on Capstone projects.

These lessons involved communication – first and foremost – in all its forms, written, verbal, and sometimes non-verbal. It involved planning and coordination, often times going back to the drawing board, because an option could not or would not work. It meant switching back and forth between the leader and follower models, depending on the situation, because decision-making is complex and requires flexibility.

Most importantly, I so greatly appreciated who I can only call “my people” here on campus. As the person representing Norwich on the planning committee, I often had to reach out to folks here, many of whom I had never met before and request items, space, arrangements, and favors and they all came through. Every single one of them, every single time.

Photo credit: Mark Collier, Norwich Photography

A teacher’s life

Yesterday, we celebrated our wonderful student researchers at the annual Student Scholarship Celebration. Out student research quality is definitely on the rise, and I enjoyed some excellent conversations with both the student researchers and my fellow faculty colleagues.

 

I am especially proud of Maria Trejo, who was designated a Weintz scholar for her proposal to do a 6-week project on building eco-machines and trying to determine whether they may be the “finishing” step we need at our wastewater treatment plants dealing with the nutrients issue.

 

As this was also the last day of classes, I had had an emotional roller coaster of a day with having to say goodbye to the first group of seniors, whom I’ve seen all the way through their four years, since we all started on opposite ends of the table way back in 2011. Then, this morning I saw this picture from yesterday’s event.

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Along one side of me stands Anthony Belval, a graduating senior, one of the smartest and kindest students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching; and on the other stands Maria, a freshman civil engineering student, so eager, excited and ready to begin her journey of research and learning. This picture also seems to capture the essence of a teacher’s life. Just as we say the really hard to say goodbyes, knowing how much we will miss our seniors, a new wave of students is already in place, ready to seize the day and continue old projects, and innovate new solutions with their fresh ideas. No wonder, this life never has a dull moment. It is a constantly changing adventure and having the front seat in so many exciting journeys is an incredible experience in and of its own.

On trying so hard, it hurts…

The bottom line is that we did not make it into Phase 2 of EPA’s P3 design competition. We did not even get an honorable mention, even though a whole bunch of people were really complimentary of the concept of our three-tiered pervious concrete filtration system. On one level, the outcome is understandable. The weather delays led to an incompletely tested and validated project, so our results were not conclusive, and there is still a lot of work to be done. On the other hand, I believe our student team represented Norwich in the best possible way, and I couldn’t be any prouder of their presentation to the judges. Each student on the team, joined along at different times of the project cycle, and contributed in different ways, but they all spoke in one voice at the competition.

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The good news is that we still have the support to keep working on the project, and have commitments from the town of Northfield, and ECHO to install our system on their properties during upcoming construction projects, so the Norwich P3 story goes on…

Vermont’s 2014 Infrastructure Report Card is here!

This afternoon, the Vermont section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released the 2014 Report Card for Vermont’s Infrastructure. It is available at http://www.vtasce.org/report-card/.

Page-1-from-2014-ASCE-Report-CardI had the wonderful opportunity to work on the Municipal Drinking Water and Wastewater sections of the report. These categories earned a grade of C- and D respectively and reflect a wide gap in our state’s needs and the resources available (or lacking) to meet these needs.

The key note speakers at the event included Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Transportation – Sue Minter, and Commissioner David Mears of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. They made a strong case for the work that is currently underway to improve these grades, even as they prepared us for future trends and urged action from everyone.

I was most impressed that the leaders of these two very important state agencies talked a lot about integrated approaches and how each of their agencies communicated with the other to collaborate on projects that transcended silos and necessitated joint actions.

 

A radio interview on the Mark Johnson show

cspanI had a great time sharing all the excitement about our current research projects on the Mark Johnson show last week. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in my first experience with a radio interview, so our amazing Assistant Director of Communications Daphne Larkin helped calm all my anxieties. She drove me there and sat through the interview.

Mark Johnson was such a gracious host. He put me right at ease and I had a great time talking about Norwich, all things research, and our exciting P3 grant work on building pervious concrete filters, as well as a little on the VT EPSCoR grant work on green infrastructure solutions for stormwater management.

The interview is at http://bit.ly/1ubotyp.

We’re in! USEPA’s P3 Student Design Competition for Sustainability

It has gone from disbelief to a feeling of being overwhelmed to a sure spike in excitement as the fall semester is up and running and our official “award” document is now in hand. We made it! We’ve made it through Phase I of the P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability for the year 2015.

It started off with a simple conversation with Susan Limberg on her idea of working on researching “pervious concrete filters” for her Honors thesis work and possibly building something along these lines for her senior Capstone project, and her yearning to want to do something to improve water sustainability in under developed and developing areas of the world. I heard her words, saw the light in her eyes, and with everything I think I know about Susan, knew that this would be the right research project to submit a P3 proposal for.

Since this submission requires a faculty PI, I was happy to write the proposal, and got started right away. We used some content from Susan’s summer research on pervious concrete with Dr. Ed Schmeckpeper, whose support and encouragement is a HUGE reason, why everything worked as well as it did. With Dr. Wendy Fuller willing to support the “social” aspects of our sustainability mission and Dr. Najiba Benabes willing to come aboard as our “economics” advisor, a first draft of the proposal was ready.

Dr. Karen Andresen and Dr. Dave Westerman asked the most thoughtful and pertinent questions as always, which helped make the proposal that much stronger.  After many other requests for collaboration and permissions and such and amidst all the craziness of classes, exams, and grading, the draft was finalized.

I’m hoping many of our Norwich students regardless of majors and years will join in and help us get to Phase 2. In any case, the campus should be hearing a number of conversations on sustainability and we will reaching out to a whole bunch of K-12 kiddos in the area as well as girl scout troupes with the message of water sustainability, so stay tuned for more on this.

Presenting the 2013-14 VT EPSCoR pilot grant research

My summer student researcher Jennifer Drew joined me in presenting a poster with the results from our study entitled “Impacts of Phosphorus on Surface Waters from Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS) in a Changing Climate”.

We were trying to look for any elevated phosphate levels in six major tributaries of the Dog River (Bull Run, Cox Brook, Felchner Brook, Stony Brook, Sunny Brook, and Union Brook) and determine whether OWTS such as septic systems in the vicinity were responsible for the elevated levels. The premise was that aging septic systems in high water table soaked soils due to increased precipitation events in a changing climate, will cause leach fields and other infiltration mechanisms to fail, and release phosphorus into the Dog River.

We collected and analyzed over 150 samples over five separate sampling events spanning fall, spring, and summer 2013-2014 and measured temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorides, in addition to nitrites, nitrate, and phosphates. We also collected latitude and longitude readings to use in IMG_2739Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping.

The lowest phosphate concentration readings we found were in Sunny Brook.  This tributary had the potential for elevated phosphate readings (based on local geology and number of OWTS in the area), so the findings invalidated our hypothesis for the study area and period. We presented these findings in the recent VT EPSCoR annual meeting for all the Research on Adaptation to Climate Change (RACC) researchers.  A lot of sweat and tears went into completing the various activities we worked on for this research. Some highlights were:

1. The involvement of all 23 students from my fall 2013 Sanitary Engineering course in the fall sampling and analysis phase of the project.IMG_1426

2. The engagement of over 80  K-12 students through service-learning projects that promoted water use, conservation, quality, and treatment. For example, one student group worked with fourth and fifth grade teachers from Flynn Elementary school in Burlington, VT, and involved their students in an engineering design process for a rainwater harvesting system for their school. Through hands on survey data collection, area, and volume calculations, physical model building and demonstration, the fourth and fifth graders got a real taste of an engineering project. The undergraduate team completed their design calculations, design drawings and a cost estimate for submission to the school. Prapat_Kids_Flynn

3. I couldn’t have done everything that this summer handed me, without all the time and effort that Jennifer put in and out of the lab. She was in the field with me and learned all the analyses quickly and was independent in no time. She called and emailed towns and other contacts many many times to work on getting data on the septic and sewer systems in the area. She managed to find her way around in GIS and create maps with barely a primer, but most of all her structure and organization made it a pleasure to have her on my team and I can say that she definitely helped shaped this project at least as much as I did. IMG_2227