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A group of engineering students at Penn State Hazleton is already getting the opportunity to put their knowledge and skills to use on a real-world project.
Seniors James Dotzel, Cassandra Kelly, Steven Principe and Justin Shimko are working on designing a drinking water protection system for the borough of Bellefonte on its historic Big Spring, which provides water for about 9,000 customers. The students are part of a yearlong senior design class in which engineering students begin to apply their classroom learning on a practical design.
“It’s exciting being able to put my years as an engineering student to use finally and help solve an actual problem rather than something theoretical. Also, I'm really intrigued to help the town of Bellefonte solve their problem because I think it is very unique and will call for some out-of-the-box thinking to find a solution,” Kelly said.
Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said the borough has previously worked with Penn State students through the University’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative.
“The groups of students have done various projects for us. We feel those projects have been beneficial to the municipality and we really enjoy working with the students. I think it’s a win-win. We get value out of it and hope they enjoy it as well,” he said. “On this project, we’re looking for fresh ideas, so having a group come in from outside the community lends itself to getting new perspective. The sustainability project can also save us money by providing us with a good direction to go in, which could reduce costs for a consultant.”
Assistant Professor of Engineering Joseph Ranalli is the coordinator of Penn State Hazleton’s engineering program, which offers a four-year degree and is the only engineering program with an alternative energy and power generation track in the Penn State system.
“They’re going to learn about working on a project for a client and get a better sense of what using engineering to solve a real-world problem is all about,” Ranalli said. “They’re moving beyond their classroom experiences and out into something that’s more like what they’ll do in their careers.”
“The Borough of Bellefonte gets its water from the Big Spring. Federal regulations require them to protect that spring as a groundwater drinking source. In this case, that means they had to have a cover that completely prevents any surface water from getting into the spring,” Ranalli said.
He coordinated with Ilona Ballreich of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, who assists in arranging community projects related to sustainability, to suggest a project idea to the students.
“Bellefonte really focuses on their history and has a community park downtown where the Big Spring is located. But the front of it looks like a swimming pool covered by a bright blue tarp. It sticks out like a sore thumb,” Ballreich described.
The team of students won’t just be focused on the aesthetics of the groundwater well cover, though. They need to ensure it meets the Department of Environmental Protection’s stringent regulations for drinking water. In order to maintain groundwater status for the well, which means it only has to be disinfected and not undergo a filtering process that could cost up to $10 million, the water can never be exposed to air or sunlight.
Ranalli said, “They need to design something that will meet the DEP regulations for drinking water, protect the water from contamination and restore the traditional look to the site. Access to safe drinking water is one of the most important needs for a community.”
At the start of the project, the students met with members of Bellefonte’s borough council, borough engineers, representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, local residents and other stakeholders to learn more about the project, hear their perspectives and ask questions. They also toured the site of the spring during that trip.
Stewart said borough officials were impressed with the team of students from the project’s beginning.
“They presented themselves in a professional manner and were curious about the project, asking a lot of good questions to learn about the history of our water system and studies that have been done regarding covering our water source. I think that was very important and we were happy to see those types of questions being raised at that point in time,” he said.
The students spent the fall semester researching drinking water regulations, communities with similar issues and potential solutions and began to develop concepts, which they presented at the end of the fall semester during a videoconference with borough officials. During the spring semester, they will look at options from a cost perspective and analyze the cost of different solutions.
Ballreich described the project as a “holistic experience” for students that allows them to talk with people with a variety of perspectives.
“Projects like these are significant and really help our community. The students really shine when put to a challenge like this. They looked and acted very professional and asked questions that showed they had thought about the problem and were genuinely interested in developing a solution,” Ballreich said.
Assistant Professor of Engineering William Yourey is the adviser to the team of students.
“It’s a great experience for the students to go through the capstone project cycle and see a customer with real needs, especially when the community has a lot of involvement. When they’re finished with school, they will have some type of customer at whatever job they have. This is a great introduction to how that interaction occurs,” Yourey said.
He said the students learn useful career skills through working as a team and finding strength in their differences. “When they go into the industry, they will have to deal with people who bring different sets of skills to the table. They might not align with everyone else, but they’re going to work together to find the best possible solutions. Situations like this project help them develop those skills,” he said.
Kelly agreed that the assignment will benefit her career goals. “This project gives me a lot of team building and the know-how of working in a dynamic team to accomplish a goal. This project also allows me to work with the local people teaching me how to work with a client, listen to their wants and needs, and then taking those needs and trying to come up with a solution to the problem,” she said.
Yourey said, “I’m confident they can come up with something to help the town of Bellefonte and get a great education and experience from this. They can give a different perspective on solutions while working on an outside-the-box engineering problem like they will encounter over and over in their careers.”
Stewart said, “We like the creativity of students and the energy they bring. We like to see them working as a team, which is important in anyone’s professional life, and we like being part of that. We look forward to seeing what they have for us at the end of the spring semester, and we would welcome any opportunities in the future to work with other students at Penn State Hazleton as well.”