Three teams of students from Arizona State University are showing the world what it means to use technology to impact both the environment and the local community. Climate change has increased the frequency of natural disasters, negatively impacting millions of people from coast to coast throughout the United States. Funded through the EPICS in IEEE Environmental Competition in partnership with the United Engineering Foundation (UEF), each project team is comprised of students from different engineering disciplines working with community partners.

A key component of the EPICS in IEEE Environmental Competition is participation in service learning—an educational approach where a student learns theories in the classroom and, at the same time, engages in practical activities to expand their understanding of what is being taught. 

This “unique program provides students the opportunity to work on hands-on projects…they are expressing their curiosity to investigate challenging problems.” said Dr. Jared Schoepf, Director of EPICS at ASU. The students partnered with non-profit organizations and learned how to develop technology to mitigate and address the impact of climate change with practical, real-world solutions. 

Hydration Station

Every week thousands of plastic water bottles are distributed to individuals without housing in Phoenix on behalf of the Human Services Campus. To combat the issue of plastic waste, a diverse team of six students studying different STEM fields created Project Hydration Station. Seth Storino, team leader for the project, says that “the opportunity to mix engineering with community service” got him interested in the EPICS program. That thought was shared by Logan Scavelin, a mechanical engineering student, who said he joined EPICS because of its real impact on communities. “I can actually make a difference in the world,” he added.

EPICS in IEEE has funded Project Hydration with an initial grant of US$2,000 to help them solve this community issue. The team worked closely with the Phoenix Human Services Campus, distributing reusable water bottles resulting in a cleaner environment. To ensure that people continue using these bottles, they will install a 24/7 water supply with a built-in sanitary station designed to clean the bottles. “Being in a team with such a diverse collection of engineering disciplines really provides a well-rounded engineering experience. I’ve learned so many things,” added Mitzu Walkifucazaki, a junior studying computer science. This project focuses on making Downtown Phoenix a cleaner neighborhood and providing a service for the clients of the Human Services Campus. 

Project Aeration

Seafood is widely consumed, but the process of sustainably obtaining fish is often overlooked. Project Aeration’s goal is to design better aeration methods to be used at AZGFD hatchery. Currently, the Arizona Game and Fish Department uses liquid oxygen as their chosen aeration method, which is poured into the water at their hatchery. This method poses multiple risks, including its far too low temperature, making it dangerous to both the fish and humans in direct contact. The team of six students came up with Project Aeration, a balanced but innovative solution that will still support the pre-existing system more safely and efficiently. 

EPICS in IEEE funded this project with US$5,500 to help them solve this community issue. Their method will utilize an oxygen diffuser to slowly infiltrate the liquid oxygen in the water, creating a sustained oxygen gas aeration technique. According to Sashit Vijay, a computer science major working on the project, “pressuring air in a more natural state creates a better environment for the fish.” The team is currently developing a prototype to run different tests focusing on one variable at a time, such as oxygen bubble size and the amount of pressure needed. Having a “team with a lot of different majors and expertise is important due to the broad nature of the problems tackled,” said Ethan McConnell, an electrical engineering major, and team lead. 

“Our solution will benefit the hatchery by making the hatchery easier to maintain, more efficient, and cost-effective. There is potential to scale our project up to the whole state of Arizona,” added fellow team member Steven Van Overmeiren. Project Aeration’s mission is to help sustain the environment inside and outside the hatchery while providing the best possible fish to its consumers. 

Lake Litter Solutions

Trash is often found in—and nearby—bodies of water, threatening the surrounding wildlife, marine life, community members, and the overall environment. Six students from Arizona State University established Project Lake Litter Solutions, which focuses on building a robot with the ability to skim a body of water and collect trash before it sinks to the bottom. Mechanical engineering student Kellen Worthington noted that the project has given us the “opportunity to work with a community partner and really get some hands-on experience.” That sentiment is echoed by fellow team member Hayden Shaw, who said that “receiving the grant from EPICS in IEEE gave us the opportunity to make this project something that would be viable.”

EPICS in IEEE provided the team with US$7,456 to create multiple iterations of their prototype. Project Lake Litter Solutions is divided into multiple phases, focusing on building multiple different types of prototypes and reviewing each design to assess which unique features to include in the final design. The student team will use rapid prototyping equipment from their university and will test in a local body of water. Jessica Maschino, a mechanical engineering major, noted the importance of the EPICS program, saying, “it helps with the application of the things that you are learning in the classroom to a real-world problem.” This project will “lead to cleaner lakes, cleaner parks, and cleaner golf courses,” said Dakota Edwards, another mechanical engineering major working on the project.

Turning Ideas into Solutions

EPICS in IEEE understands that with an educational background in engineering and technology, these teams are in an excellent position to provide solutions to local environmental issues.

By working with local community organizations, the students learn how to work across disciplines and design solutions for a specific partner with stakeholders of different backgrounds than their own. This program “allows students to take an idea, a passion, and turn it from a simple prototype to a fully deployed solution,” according to Stephanie Gillespie, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of New Haven. “We believe that students can make a difference, and these experiences positively impact their learning, making the next generation of engineers stronger, more empathic, and aware of the impact they can have through technology.”