May 05, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Senior engineer Brandon Vonk making calculations near the HydroTower.

Team HydroTower fiddled with the LED array illuminating their hydroponic tomatoes, and team Supermileage took a lap around Ring Road in their fuel-efficient single-person vehicle and team Achieving Mobility fine-tuned the motorized stroller they built for Isaac Postma, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. With Senior Projects Night just days away—on May 7, 2011—Calvin student engineers were putting in a lot of hours.

“I was here till 1:30 a.m. last night,” said Jacqueline Kirkman, a senior mechanical engineering concentrator helping to build the HydroTower. Her teammates confessed to working similar hours in pursuit of project perfection.

14 projects

There are 14 senior design teams this year, each one a different configuration of civil and environmental, chemical, electrical and computer and mechanical concentrators. Through the year-long course, Senior Design Project, each team takes on a year-long project that serves as a capstone to their Calvin engineering experience. 

“They’re wide-ranging projects,” said engineering professor Randy Brouwer. “One of the things it does for them is it gives them confidence in taking a design from start to finish.”

That process often includes a few design cul-de-sacs, as Team HydroTower—composed of two mechanical and three electrical concentrators— discovered while creating a fully automated hydroponic farm for home use. At various points in the project construction, the nutrient system seemed too chemically complicated, the original square structure proved inappropriate and the LEDs went on the blink. “We knew there were parts we underestimated,” said mechanical concentrator Brian DeKock.  “We’re learning more than we anticipated,” Kirkman agreed.

A usable solution

Team Achieving Mobility faced the challenges of creating a design that was not simply a prototype, but a real-life engineering solution. The team developed a motorized stroller (a hybrid of a stroller and a motorized wheelchair) for 10-year old Isaac Postma, who has been diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The Postmas have approved the final design, which allows Isaac to control the vehicle with the touch of a finger and see where he is going through an LCD screen. "We haven't let him drive it yet because it's kind of fast. We want to slow it down," said Rob Vander Vennen, a mechanical concentrator. Two team members will remain in the Grand Rapids area this summer to do final adjustments and maintenance on the stroller.

An appropriate solution

Team Pure Pastaza faced a single, sizeable, challenge: their design for a wastewater treatment system wasn’t suitable for the site. Pure Pastaza, made up of four civil concentrators, discovered their project’s unsuitability when they visited their projected site, a hospital in Shell Mera, Ecuador. “The people were so wonderful, and we were so motivated to do a good job for them because they were so welcoming,” said team-member Rachel Koopman. The team changed the pond system they originally proposed into a septic tank, a dosing tank and a drain field. “To find a design for this system is pretty difficult,” confessed Ben Vander Plas.

The team faces one additional challenge come Senior Projects Night, when the senior engineers present their projects for families and friends during the annual open house, held from 4 to 6 p.m. this year in the two wings of the engineering building. (The public is welcome to attend.) Like many senior design teams with projects in other countries (especially those in developing countries) Pure Pastaza doesn’t have a prototype. “We definitely talked about it—that we wouldn’t have anything to show for it,” said team member James Dykstra. Ultimately, the team decided that that particular sacrifice was worthwhile.

As were the long hours. “Senior design doesn’t really allow time for senioritis,” Dykstra said.

Team Pure Pastaza reviews their plan for a wastewater treatment plant.

Team Achieving Mobility with the stroller they created for Isaac Postma

Team Green Gold developed a tubular reactor for converting algae into a biofuel.

Test driving the BUV

A complete list of senior design projects:

PICA: Designing user-friendly system for monitoring electrical output in homes and businesses

HydroTower: Developing a hydroponic model for urban farming

Achieving Mobility: Creating a motorized wheelchair whose driver can operate it with the touch of a finger

Hydraulic Hybrid Vehicle: Designing a gas-hydraulic drive system with regenerative braking for use in a mail delivery truck.

Supermileage: Designing a durable farm vehicle for use in rural Africa.

Build Until Victory: Increasing fuel economy in semi-trucks

Rear View:Developing a rear-view camera monitoring systmem to replace the rear-view mirror in cars.

Pure Pastaza:  Developing a waste-water treatment system for a hospital in Ecuador

Sifuni Mungu: Creating a comprehensive design for a boys' high school in Kenya

Tyler Creek Restoration: Fighting agricultural contamination in a west Michigan creek

Khmer Genesis: Designing a multi-story building for a Cambodian NGO

Green Gold: Developing a process to convert algae into bio-fuel

Moonrakers:   Designing a method for converting metallic oxides in the lunar soil into a breathable oxygen supply

Burden of ThirstCreating a water purification system capable of producing 3,000 gallons of potable water per day without fossil fuels.

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