March 21, 2014 | Matt Kucinski

A rendering of a preliminary conceptual design for the new Rehoboth Christian High School

When the new Rehoboth Christian High School opens its doors, students at Calvin College may see their fingerprints all over it.

Calvin engineering professors Matt Heun and Gayle Ermer were approached last summer by Ken Zylstra, the director of development for Rehoboth Christian School (RCS), about assessing the feasibility of alternative energy production in Rehoboth, New Mexico.

In January, the two professors asked their interim to answer the question "what would it take for RCS to construct, own, operate and maintain a solar photovoltaic (PV) energy system?"

In three short weeks, the team of 15 students had done a comprehensive assessment and presented their work to RCS representatives.

“The Calvin students did an excellent job of fully assessing the different areas involved including potential equipment, installation processes, system costs and long term financial impact,” said Zylstra.

“They should be extremely proud that they did both important technical design work, and they worked on many political, policy and regulatory issues, too,” said Heun.

Working together

Senior Nathan Hiemstra worked with others in the group researching the various types of solar panels and their placement. While he learned about the benefits of monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels and about how roof obstacles, aesthetics, orientation and maintenance requirements play into panel placement, he says the most important take-aways revolved around developing healthy team dynamics.

“Given the large scope of the project and the short time period, we were pressed to rely on one another,” said Hiemstra. “Not only does a project like the Rehoboth solar project challenge us to use the wide array of skills that we have learned throughout our time at Calvin, it also teaches us to leverage one another’s skills to solve problems.”

A real client, a real project

And for these students it’s not the first or last time they’ll work together on a real-world project. Engineering students all work in small teams on a senior design project in their capstone course. And, this past fall, the students in the Thermal System Design class worked with professor Tom Betts' marketing class and the college’s physical plant to design and market a system that converts the dining hall waste vegetable oil into usable fuel for a campus lawnmower.

“It’s very rewarding to work on a project with real-world implications,” said Karl Bratt, a senior engineering major who helped with the financials related to the RCS project. “The team dynamics and workload of these two projects better represent what our engineering jobs will look like in the future. Having this experience while still in college has been a blessing.”

“I think having a client makes our decisions have more weight than just if we were doing this project for a class. Also, most of the students in class want to see these projects be implemented,” said Claire Phillippi, a senior engineering major.

A driving passion

But, it’s not just the client that drives the students and professors to work hard on projects like these. Heun says it goes back to the mandate to be stewards of the creation.

“The work in all of these areas was led by students who are passionate about renewable energy and the energy situation faced by the world,” said Heun. “That students could focus those passions on a particular and specific, real-world case study was the key to unlock their hard work.”

Bratt’s passionate about sustainable ways of global food production and transportation. He says he’ll carry the understanding of the dynamics between population growth and food production with him into his future job with Nestle’.

Phillippi is passionate about sustainable energy and food systems, too. She only eats local food to reduce the overall energy that goes into her food because of transportation costs. She’s also the administrator of intentional community at Calvin, in which students grow and can food. She currently works at Best Metal Products in Grand Rapids and will begin full-time as a design engineer there when she graduates in May.

Worth the work

Now, the students are hoping their hard work and passion for this most recent project will pay dividends for the community of Rehoboth. Zylstra says the RCS board of directors is hoping to make a decision on solar in the next year as they shore up plans for the new high school, which is projected to open in fall of 2017.

“We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without the full cooperation of everyone,” said Bratt. “Yes, there were plenty of late nights in the Engineering Building, but the final result has been worth the struggle.”

“I can honestly say I enjoy everything I study in my classes,” said Phillippi. “The work just feels like a joy when you can enjoy the topic of study this much. Professor Heun has definitely helped me balance a very busy schedule with things I love for me to live life to the fullest as Christ intended.”

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