ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
Teaching Toolbox
A Little Help From Their Friends

by Linda L. Creighton

So you've been accepted at your first pick for engineering school. You've moved your stuff to campus, paid the tuition, signed up for your courses, changed roommates, and unpacked your bags. Now, where are you gonna go for a real submarine sandwich at 1 o'clock in the morning? And how in the world are you ever going to find someone to talk to about what you're doing here?

Lucky, lucky you. You're at the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, and you have Engineering 100. This required first-year course gives each of its 1,100 Urbana-Champaign freshmen a road map of academic, social, and personal routes through the next four years of university life. And it's not taught by faculty, who may or may not be plugged into the reality of undergraduate travails. Two students co-direct Engineering 100, supervising the 40 other students known as ELAs, or Engineering Learning Assistants. If you need to know how to create a Web site, write a resume, or ponder the pitfalls of fake IDs for liquor purchase, you can get the skinny from somebody who's been there, done that.

Chosen for their enthusiasm, involvement in college and campus activities, and ability to relate to first-year students, the ELAs complete 30 hours of training and prepare lesson plans that broadly cover computing, work opportunities, campus services, academic resources, and extracurricular activities. They're paid $7 an hour for training time and for up to 5 hours a week to cover class time, preparation time, and a weekly office hour.

Meeting once a week for six weeks in the fall, each class has 10 to 25 students, with grades limited to satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Accordingly, the classroom topics are projects like "5-minute tower" in which small groups are given 5 minutes to build the tallest tower they can using only materials they brought with them to class, or a "scavenger hunt" scramble across campus to find items listed in their textbooks.

The ability to work in a team and to network, critical during engineering school, is honed with activities called "Ice Breakers." "Two Truths and a Lie"--in which each student shares three "facts" about him or herself and the class has to guess the falsehood--is a quick path to building relationships. Another is "Human Knot," where students are put in a circle and told to reach across and grasp hands and then untangle themselves without letting go.

Backing up the personalized attention in class is the extended reach of the ELAs, many of whom have set up their own Web sites as an easy introduction tool. Amee Green talks about all the engineers in her family and about the "scary" process of beginning the search for a full-time job. Scott Zimmer, a senior aeronautical and astronautical engineering major, describes his devotion to the Chicago Cubs and generously offers guidance to students who might be interested in campus research projects. ELA Jacqueline Sara Kubilus, a senior majoring in general engineering, alerts her students to career-oriented opportunities she's discovered, like her involvement in the Society of Women Engineers.

Since students have assumed the role of teachers for this course six years ago, senior Jonathan Dolle and general engineering professor Ray Price, authors of a course overview, say that the program has "dramatically improved the experiences of first-year students," an assessment reflected in student evaluation forms.

The challenge ahead is to keep the program in the hands of students with continued financial support by the university. "The assistance to first-year students and the leadership opportunities for upperclassmen has been so successful that we hope other colleges might replicate it," says Dolle, who is majoring in both general engineering and philosophy. For freshmen, it could be the best engineering feat of the year.

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

Research That Really Reeks

Can you engineer the stink out of pigs? It's a question that pork producers, pig farm neighbors, environmentalists, and chemical manufacturers would like to answer. To find out, the agricultural engineering department at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, has put its nose to the grindstone.

It's actually not the pigs that stink, but their manure—almost a ton per pig each year. Pig farms are getting bigger—tens of thousands of pigs can be on one farm site alone. State and federal regulations about air and odor standards are getting stricter. Combine those factors with the encroachment of suburbia on previously isolated farms, and you can smell trouble. A Missouri hog farm recently got slapped with a $5 million penalty for failing to contain its aroma. The National Pork Board has launched an Odor Solutions Initiative, with $2.3 million slated for odor management exploration.

In an effort to clear the air, the pork industry is enlisting the help of engineers like Al Heber at the Purdue Agricultural Air Quality Laboratory, who has worked on the science and research of odors since 1994.

"We develop methodology to measure odor and emissions," says Heber. That includes terms like "hedonic tone," measuring the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an odor, and trained research panelists who follow strict rules (no spicy foods, gum, coffee, tea, or deodorant) to keep their noses in top form while sniffing.

On farms, pig manure is routinely deposited into pits beneath barn floors, transferred to outside lagoons, and finally sprayed on farmland or sold to other farmers as organic fertilizer. Because the manure is often stored for up to a year before being sprayed, the smell is overpowering. Chemical additives—dismissed by hog farmers as "foo-foo dust" because they doubt their effectiveness—have long been touted as a method to control the offensive ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions, but are used with widely varying results. To give farmers a scientific yardstick for these products, the National Pork Board funded a project to analyze samples of 35 commercially available additives in a controlled laboratory environment.

Heber designed a custom-built lab incorporating 40 four-foot tall PVC pipes capped at top and bottom. Swine manure was brought in to fill each column half full, with more manure added daily for a period of five weeks, simulating manure accumulation and storage on farms. The commercial additives were then added, and resulting gas concentrations, temperatures, and pressures were monitored continuously. Bag samples were collected and evaluated first by an electronic nose—that is, equipment with sensors to measure smell—and then by the ultimate smell device: the human nose.
Although the results of the study weren't available when Prism went to press, varied farm use of these additives, combined with minimal impact reported by farmers, suggests that they are not the "silver bullet" in odor management.

Innovative approaches often produce better results, says Heber, citing the example of a Minnesota farmer who reduced his 650-sow barn smell by 90 percent by designing and building his own barn ventilation system.

Some of the research indicates that the solution may be more old-fashioned good sense than scientific breakthroughs. Phil Aulis, the farm manager for a  1200-sow operation 40 miles southwest of Chicago, says the seven employees of the 100-year-old farm work hard with one goal: Cleanliness. "Lots of farmers have the mentality that it's a farm, so it smells bad," says Aulis. " We don't use any additives at all. We just keep everything as clean as possible." That includes pressure washing and disinfecting every inch of the operation every few weeks.

Still, when the manure is sprayed onto the farmland, it's not perfume, says Aulis. "They're trying to do something unnatural in taking the odor away entirely. For that, you do need something scientific. And if we can do it without costing too much, and it makes the neighbors happy, that's what we'll do."

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

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