Senior mechanical engineering majors Benjamin Bruno, left, and Stephen Bartone, right, display their mechanical solution to cover winter crops at the Student Research and Creative Activity Expo on May 3.
Photographer: Wayne Thomas
This crop cover, designed by OHIO engineering students, aims to increase productivity at Green Edge Gardens, a family-owned organic farm in nearby Amesville, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of: Ben Palko
May 9, 2012
By Monica Chapman
This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.
This Saturday, Ohio University's senior mechanical engineering majors will showcase their capstone design projects – the culmination of an entire academic year's worth of research, planning and development. But their final student contribution will far outlast their days at Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology.
As part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering's "Designing to Make a Difference" program, each senior design project addresses a community need – advancing the community-University partnerships that are fundamental to OHIO's vision.
"We search for projects where the solution to the customer's need can make a meaningful difference in their life or their work," said Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair Greg Kremer, who implemented and oversees the "Designing for a Difference" program.
In addition to projects that assist the elderly and the handicapped, many of this year's capstone projects support small businesses and cooperatives in an attempt to address the economic challenges that are prevalent in the Appalachian region where Ohio University is located, said Kremer.
Among this year's project partners is Kip Rondy, who owns Green Edge Gardens with his wife, Becky. The family-owned farm in Amesville, Ohio, provides certified organic produce to the Athens and Columbus regions.
Known for its sustainable farming practices and its Community Supported Agriculture programs, the farm's 10 greenhouses provide a year-round selection of microgreens and other seasonal vegetables, without artificial heating. But the process of manually covering and uncovering the greenhouses – which takes place every time temperatures dip below 27 degrees – is cumbersome. At best, the two-man job takes more than two hours each day, according to Rondy.
"That can really slow down your production time in a day, especially in the winter, when light is at a minimum," he added.
This dilemma eventually came to shape the senior capstone experience for two teams of mechanical engineers. Throughout the year, groups worked to design two separate mechanical crop covers to span a 30x90 foot growing area – providing geothermal heat during the winter growing season.
Rondy added to that challenge by setting his sights high: His goal was for one person to be able to cover a greenhouse in one minute flat – all for less than $500.
As opposed to many class projects, where engineering students are asked to find the biggest and best solutions, price and simplicity were key in this assignment so that the designs could eventually be replicated, according to senior mechanical engineering major Tyler Smith.
The lack of existing mechanical models added to the project's complexity.
"No one else that we could find is doing anything like this mechanically … Everything is completely custom on the job," said senior mechanical engineering major Ben Palko, whose team also had to contend with Mother Nature, after windstorms blew off their greenhouse top mid-spring quarter.
Despite the hurdles, two working prototypes were delivered Green Edge Gardens earlier this month. Rondy said he plans to take his time modifying the crop covers, before adopting versions of the designs in his remaining greenhouses.
"It will make us way more productive, and that's what's really critical – being more productive and being able to make better wages for the people who work here and more produce for the people who live here," he said.
Such development technology helps make the community more secure and self-reliant, and it can be duplicated in other communities in this temperate region, Rondy added.
"Designing to Make a Difference" students have earned their share of recognition for philanthropic engineering endeavors.
Three teams in the last few years either won or placed in the national Ability One Network Design Challenge. Other teams won the National Institute for the Severely Handicapped's National Scholar Award for Workplace Innovation & Design, and the J. F. Lincoln Foundation silver award.
While providing affordable engineering services to a community in need, "Designing to Make a Difference" partnerships simultaneously serve the needs of students. This is accomplished, according to Kremer, through a meaningful and motivational integrative learning experience.
"It incorporates pretty much all the skills we've learned, from machine design and computer analysis to testing and experimentation skills," said senior mechanical engineering major Adam Barber, who has spent the year developing a hydraulic lift platform for White's Mill.
But the big picture has not been lost over the course of study.
"I think the most important part is not necessarily that they have a design system that they can use. It's that they now have a link to the University in some way," Barber said.
According to Rondy, "Designing to Make a Difference" serves as a model for future community-University partnerships.
"I think we need to have a lot more of that in the community," he said. "When we see different technology that needs assistance, and we have the expertise here to do that – that's the University and the town at its best."