A group of students and two of their advisors.

From classroom to real world

Senior mechanical engineering students take on sustainable design

In an era that capitalizes so much on sustainability, how can engineers make sure buildings meet Minnesota’s regulations on energy consumption? That is a question five mechanical engineering (ME) seniors—Sean Prior, Zach Peer, Chase Christen, Margaret Nelson, and Josh Westphaln—sought to answer with their capstone design project. 

As part of their ME 4054W class, these College of Science and Engineering students worked with Minnesota-based energy consulting company Willdan to create a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) design for the Fergus Falls Public Library. Aimed at reducing energy and carbon waste in the library, the project also had to meet the state’s requirements for energy usage in buildings. 

“These sorts of projects allow [students] to experience engineering decision making without the pressure of cost and benefit decisions,” said Jim Douglas, vice president at Willdan. “Most entry-level engineering positions won’t put a new employee in that responsibility of course, but early steps along those lines help the new employee gain confidence and greater responsibility more quickly.”

With guidance from Douglas and another advisor Ryan Schwartz, the CSE students met real-world parameters such as budget and customer satisfaction in addition to researching different types of HVAC systems, drawing up an efficient design, and using Willdan’s Net Energy Optimizer software to size their model. 

One of the seniors, Sean Prior, said the biggest challenge was navigating their lack of knowledge about the HVAC industry. 

“Coming into the project, most of us had very little experience in HVAC,” Prior explained. “So, we did a lot of in-depth research online and by interviewing some industry connections.”

That’s also where Douglas and Schwartz helped immensely, the students said. By working directly with engineering professionals, they could learn more about both the industry and its best practices. 

“It’s important to know you are following the right design process,” team member Chase Christen said. “Working with a company on a project like this is helpful [because you can] move forward with systems you know will work.”

On top of giving students an opportunity to take the design reins, this project also proved mutually beneficial for Willdan.

Douglas said that by volunteering a current challenge as a classroom assignment, the company could gain greater insight into the functionality of its Net Energy Optimizer software and better understand the skills of a group of graduating students—or potential new hires.

“We intend our practice to be accessible to employees entering the workforce,” he said.

“The students’ use of our software is very helpful to create better experiences for future clients,” Douglas added.

Whether the students end up pursuing a career in the HVAC field or another facet of engineering after graduation, they leave this class at the University of Minnesota with valuable project management experience and a broader perspective of a career in mechanical engineering.

Christen said part of the reason he loves ME is because of its versatility, which this project enabled him to see. 

“Mechanical engineering is interesting because you can combine solid mechanics, electronics, control, heat transfer, and fluid mechanics to solve nearly any problem,” he said. “[This major] allows me to have a breadth of knowledge about many topics, and I have found that this is essential to problem-solving at work.” 

Story by Olivia Hultgren


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