Dordt College News

The mechanics (or anatomy) of an engineering senior design project

May 22, 2012

Senior design projects are the culmination of the engineering major’s career at Dordt College.

Through these projects, they test and demonstrate their textbook knowledge on “real world” problems.

It is very wide-open,” says Dr. Ethan Brue. “It’s no longer ‘here are the constraints, solve the problem’ like it is in textbooks; it’s now ‘here is the problem, define the constraints.’”

Dordt engineering seniors work in teams to tackle a specific design problem. They spend their last two semesters working on projects ranging from a small scale wind turbine to a biochar cookstove.

Sometimes the projects do not have clear-cut answers, and sometimes they take entirely different paths than the design team first anticipated. Many students find that they must narrow the scope of their project to fit within their two-semester timeframe. And when problems arise, Dordt’s engineering professors consult with the students but allow them to make their own decisions.

“Unforseen problems are one of the few things that we can count on during the design process,” says Dr. Kevin Timmer. “Learning how to do design within the context of limits is a critical skill for engineers that may be best developed through practice. As faculty mentors, we point the design teams in particular directions and let them wrestle with the details.” 

This year, eleven teams presented their final projects to the community at the end of the year. But, the professors believe, as interesting and exciting as the projects and some of the results are, the presentations certainly are not the only valuable aspect of the senior design projects.

“Typically, everyone sees the final product,” says Brue. “But, most people don’t see the incredibly valuable learning experience of dealing with the ups and downs of real world decisions and situations that come up in the midst of the projects.”

This is also where Christian perspective comes into play, according to Brue: “senior design projects are so open-ended that they give students the latitude to design in a way they feel restores and develops, in an obedient way, the technical landscape.”

“God has created a beautifully complex world,” adds Timmer. “One of my favorite parts of the design process is struggling along with our seniors as they apply their intuition, creativity, and engineering knowledge to develop responsible technological solutions to novel problems.”

Here is a glimpse into the mechanics of three of this year’s engineering senior design projects. Each team has encountered unanticipated problems, has made project-altering decisions, and has found different opportunities as a result.


Gathering Ideas

Where do senior design projects come from? Professors gather ideas for senior design projects. Most are either company-sponsored or Dordt-sponsored.

“In the summer, we send emails out to our regional industries, and sometimes to alumni in the area and even beyond, asking if they have good ideas for senior design projects that fit within the scope of a year,” says Dr. Ethan Brue. They have received ideas from as far away as Honduras, he adds.

Sometimes students submit their own ideas, and sometimes the engineering faculty suggests projects that would benefit the department. Once the fall semester starts, the engineering faculty compiles a list of all of the ideas and submits it to the students, who then select a project based on what interests them most.

Solar Cooling

“Just imagine using the sun to create a cooling effect,” says Sam Yang. “Isn’t this a paradox?”

It was this paradox that excited the team at the beginning of the project. Bob De Smith, Paul Kleyer, and Sam Yang envisioned researching absorption refrigeration and building a unit that ran entirely on solar energy. But, they soon ran into snags.

“Our plan was to build a prototype,” says De Smith. “But, we soon found that it was hard to design and build it in a semester.”

They had planned to use the solar collectors on the science building roof to capture energy but found that type of collector didn’t reach the high temperatures they needed.

“Now we’re comparing the different ways you can harvest solar energy for a refrigeration system, trying to figure out which one would be best,” says Kleyer.

The team purchased a small absorption refrigerator like those found in RVs and has been running tests ever since.

“We wanted to see our project actually work, so it’s been kind of a letdown,” admits Kleyer.

But, Yang says, the project has helped the team to think globally, because a solar refrigeration system could provide opportunities for cooling in developing countries.

“This technology has a great possibility to improve the lifestyle, economy, and community in developing countries,” says Yang. “Rather than developing technologies that fulfill our desires or wants, we are glad to be a part of unfolding technologies at Dordt that please God by pleasing our neighbors.”

“And dealing with things that you realize aren’t going to work and finding ways to make them work by changing them has been very helpful,” says Kleyer.

For Sam Yang, who plans to attend graduate school for sustainable energy, the senior project will be directly applicable to his future endeavors.

“With problem sets, there’s always a right answer,” says De Smith. “With this project, we know that there isn’t a certain right answer.” That’s the way it’s likely to be for the rest of their lives.

Denitrifying Bioreactor

“Nitrates in local surface water in Northwest Iowa is a large and growing concern,” says Mark Van Weelden.

Nitrates, which often find their way into the local water supply through field runoff, can threaten the environment and, in some cases, human health. Van Weelden and teammates Nathanael Couperus, Steven DeLawyer, and Luke Reznecheck were eager to work with their client, Rural Water Systems # 1 of Hospers, Iowa, to tackle this problem by constructing a denitrifying bioreactor.

“Our bioreactor is a large stretch of carbon material—which, in our case, is woodchips—that the water filters through,” says Couperus. Water flows through the bioreactor, where chemical and biological processes convert the nitrates into less harmful chemicals.

Last fall the team worked with Rural Water Sysytems # 1 to build their bioreactor in a natural gully. They used sustainable resources and, according to DeLawyer, made sure to “not disrupt water flow that would naturally occur.”

“If we had waited to build until this spring,” adds Van Weelden, “we wouldn’t have been able to do any testing on it because we needed water to flow through our reactor after the snow melted.”

But the unusually warm and dry winter and spring in Northwest Iowa had a major effect on their plans.

“The ground is just too dry,” says Couperus. “We spoke with the director of Rural Water Systems, and he said this is the first year he has not seen [water] flow in the gully in the spring.”

At first, this seemed like a major problem: without water flow, the team could not collect as many samples from the bioreactor as they first anticipated. However, the situation soon took their research in a different direction.

“In a normal year, we wouldn’t have had this warmth,” says Couperus. “The warmth helps bacteria grow to create anaerobic conditions, which is how the nitrate reduction reaction happens best.”

“Anaerobic means ‘no oxygen,’” adds DeLawyer.

Most scientists are still unsure how bacteria affects the nitrogen removal process, so the growth of bacteria in the team’s bioreactor could lead to further study in the future. And because the bioreactor can effectively remove nitrates from the water supply for up to 10 years, future Dordt engineering students or others could study it for years to come.

The project also gave the team some experience in project management.

“Working on a bigger project was a good experience,” says DeLawyer. “In engineering classes, we usually work on week-long projects. Having to budget and manage your resources and time for a year-long project has been good.”

The senior project has also changed their opinions on what it means to be stewardly with God’s creation.

“Stewardship principles encourage us to find ways to care for both the natural creation and our neighbor,” says Van Weelden. “This project addresses issues that affect people from Northwest Iowa all the way to the Mississippi Delta.”

Enhanced Fishing Boat Access

The introduction to the senior engineering team’s paper defines this team’s problem: “Mr. Fred Haan owns a 16-foot fishing boat and enjoys fishing during the summer. However, a muscular degenerative disease has rendered him unable to use his legs, which makes it nearly impossible for him to get in and out of his boat safely.”

The solution? Dan Baas, Tyler Buys, James Hondred, and Brad Trimm designed a lift for Haan.

“It looks a lot like a crane,” says Hondred. “It picks him up [without his wheelchair] and swings him into the right spot in the boat.”

As with the others, however, the sailing wasn’t all smooth for this team. They did not want to make significant changes to Haan’s boat, and their initial design did not go as well as planned.

“Our first idea was to attach our lift to a dock and lift him into the boat when it was in the water,” says Buys.

That idea did not work because they could not guarantee that the dock would be stable enough.

“So, we decided to attach the lift to Mr. Haan’s trailer, placing him in the boat before it is in the water,” says Buys.

“We checked back with Mr. Haan to make sure that the design was all right,” says Buys. “We also spoke with him prior to fabricating the design.”

After Midwest Metal Works of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, built the final product, they were ready to test the lift.

“On other projects, it isn’t a big deal if something breaks. You just fix it,” says Hondred. “When working with a person, we have to be sure the design withstands human weight.”

Although they performed all of the necessary safety test calculations on the computer, members of the team tested the weight on the crane themselves first. The initial “test ride” worked, and after a few minor adjustments, they took their final product to Haan.

“It went great,” says Buys. “We got him into the boat. We weren’t by a lake, but he was in the boat.”

Haan is satisfied with the lift.

“It is just what I was hoping for,” he says.

The team is glad that their hard work will now help Haan to enjoy a sport that they, too, love.

“All of us in this group like sports and outdoors and fishing, and that’s what got me into it,” said Buys. “We thought it would be fun and are glad that we could help Fred out.”


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