The Elon Engineering Capstone Project Program is setting the stage for years of exploration into water quality monitoring, restoration and projects that advance water research.
Working behind Schar Center in a stormwater drainage retention pond, 10 engineering seniors spent the final weeks of their last semester as undergraduates building a dock and deploying 15 floating wetland modules. Part of an engineering capstone project, the goal is to monitor water quality and the effectiveness of the modules and native plants at eliminating water pollution.
“It’s just a really cool project,” says Matthew Del Valle ’21. Excess nitrogen, phosphorous and other chemical pollutants cause algae blooms and conditions that kill wildlife and contaminate drinking water. “We’re removing chemicals that are harming the environment and actually harming people, and we’re doing it without adding anything but native plants.”
The project, which was made possible by a gift from the Meier family of Portland, Oregon, sets the stage for years of exploration into water quality monitoring, restoration and projects that advance water research, an integral component of what Elon wants to accomplish with the Innovation Quad. “Our hope is that the capstone will raise the curiosity of students to establish careers addressing water issues, which are pervasive,” says Eric Meier P’21, president and CEO of Owl Insights, a developer of software that helps manage behavioral health care conditions. “There is a real sense that we need to train the next generation of engineers to pursue careers in water science.”
In fall 2020, student teams began developing three kinds of computerized sensors — gas, electrochemical and optical — to measure compounds and organisms in and around water. They were guided by Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter, Assistant Professor of Engineering Jonathan Su and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Brant Touchette. Del Valle, Eduardo Gonzalez ’21 and Sohan Hess ’21 invented a complex camera that uses a digital sensor and ultra-bright LED lights to visualize and identify bacteria and particulates in water.
Another four students — Georgia Gurney ’21, Trent Houpt ’21, Alex Sobel ’21 and Charlie Walsh ’21 — engineered sensors to measure gases released by plants on the wetland modules. Designing affordable alternatives to commercially available instruments was a goal from the outset. Most of the designs cost under $100 to build. In one remarkable outcome, Noah Kagan ’21, Chloe Radigan ’21 and Morgan Sperry ’21 began with a $10,000 instrument measuring water oxygenation and designed an alternative electrochemical sensor valued at about $125.
The wetlands project will continue in 2021–22 and beyond, with opportunities for additional collaboration with faculty and outside partners. “This year’s project was significant because it advanced our interest in global and community outreach and our focus on becoming a water research center,” Wolter says. “It’s like a snowball. Now we’ve built up some speed and we’re growing.”
Want to get involved? To learn how you can partner with the Elon Engineering Capstone Project Program, contact John Ring, director of engineering outreach, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about “Theme 1: Learn” of the Boldly Elon strategic plan.