January 14, 2022 | Matt Kucinski

Engineering students help Habitat for Humanity


Engineering 333 started off unexpectantly.

“It was very stressful at the start of the semester. There were many students who were utterly surprised,” said Duncan Waanders, a senior engineering major.

“Mouths are open on day one,” said Matt Heun, the instructor of the course. “Students were saying there’s no way you can expect that of us.”

But Heun’s gotten comfortable allowing students to sit in that uncomfortable space. In fact, he joins them there.

When the answer is not known ... yet

“Normally with every class that’s taught the professor knows the answer or it’s in the back of the book or in an answer key, but how do you teach and learn when the professor doesn’t know the answer?” wondered Heun.

That’s a learning outcome of ENGR 333. Professor Heun sets a problem before the students and asks them to work to solve it.

“I’ll guide them in the right direction when they need guidance, but there are no lectures for this part of the class,” said Heun. “It’s all student-driven, and that’s a terribly scary way to teach, because I don’t know what the outcomes are going to be, but both myself and my colleagues across the university acknowledge there are certain problems in society we don’t yet know the answer to.”

The that

And so that’s the space Heun and his engineering students inhabited this fall.

Habitat for Humanity is one of the largest players in residential housing construction, and their Kent County branch is particularly known for its efforts in reducing carbon emissions throughout the building process. Mark Ogland-Hand, a leader in the organization, wondered about the expected carbon savings of a low-carbon footprint house Habitat was constructing. Ogland-Hand and Heun devised a question for the engineering students: what would it take to reduce those carbon emissions by a further 20%?

“I thought ‘we’re not qualified to work for a real client, we’re just senior engineers, we don’t know how to solve big world problems,’” recalled Waanders of the assignment.

Heun felt differently: “Mark with Habitat wants to know the answer. My students are smart enough to figure it out. So, let’s figure it out.”

With that, the project got underway and so did the 2021 fall edition of ENGR 333.

Into the unknown

The two sections of Heun’s class were each assigned an existing Habitat house in Grand Rapids to analyze as well as the low carbon build that was just a foundation when they were introduced to the project in early September.

The two sections divided up to work on two areas, some working on analysis—everything from looking at embodied carbon, the onsite carbon emissions, electricity, and heating, and the other area focused on design elements—focusing on what design aspects would help reduce emissions further.

“There’s a time in most of these projects when students come to me and ask, ‘how do we analyze or design some aspect of this project,’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, never done that,’ and they look at me and say, ‘you don’t know, and you expect us to do it.’ At that moment, the project ceases to be an assignment and switches to a responsibility,” said Heun. “They are now responsible for figuring out how this is going to end—that moment for me is like magic. When it happens, I see the wheels turn, they’re thinking ‘we better figure this out because we will be making a presentation to the entire engineering department.”

Digging for answers

And throughout the semester, students figured things out through research and through asking a lot of questions of both consultant (Heun) and client (Ogland-Hand).

Hundreds of questions came into Ogland-Hand, and he answered them all.

“One of our students Baylee kept a spreadsheet of all of the emails she sent to Mark and his responses. It’s hundreds of emails he responded to,” said Heun. “It’s an incredible investment on his part, and that investment benefits both Habitat and also our students.”

“I sensed a strong interest in learning, a strong interest in asking the right questions and finding the right answers,” said Ogland-Hand. “To see such young people so clearly passionate and so clearly jump in and tackle some of these things and ask good questions and clearly have a passion for this is very encouraging.”

Finding answers and confidence

And, in early December, the students stood in front of a lecture hall packed with students, faculty, staff, and their clients, and presented a detailed analysis of what they found.

To simplify it greatly, the students found that while you can’t ignore the carbon emissions present in the initial upfront activity of getting materials and all the onsite construction actions, the majority of the carbon emissions come after someone occupies and operates the house. It really came down to the utilities.

“The greatest takeaway is because houses last for so long, what we do right now for a house is going to have effects for decades to come until the equipment needs to be swapped out,” said Ogland-Hand after the presentation.

And that holds true in education too. The confidence built through problem-based education will hopefully serve students for decades to come.

Equipped to be problem solvers

“Although it can feel overwhelming at the time, it’s good experience for students, because there will be times in their careers when someone will ask them to do something, and they’ll have little experience in it. In those moments, they’ll need to get up to speed quickly. But a few months or several months in they’ll get some good results,” said Heun. “It provides confidence for the next time someone asks them to do something they have little experience with.”

Waanders remembers what Heun said to the class on day one when they argued they weren’t qualified to take this on.

“‘You will look later in the semester and realize how far you have come, how much you have learned, and how much you can do,’” recalls Waanders of Heun’s words.

“He was right. System worked as intended,” said Waanders. “I think everyone in our class was amazed at how much we were able to come together and how much we were able to accomplish. We were able to make a comprehensive presentation. Where at the beginning most of us couldn’t really define what embodied carbon was, now most of us can quote what it is for a specific house, and I think that’s really incredible.”

“A couple students came up to me after today’s presentation and they asked, ‘how did you know we could do this?’,” said Heun. “The process of crafting a project that is the right size and scope is always exciting and it’s always a joy to do that for the students. Students learn so much when they encounter big challenges, when they work collaboratively with each other and the professor, and when they serve others in the process."

Heun and his colleagues have been doing this type of work with students for years ... heading into the unknown together in pursuit of new insights.

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