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News Release

February 12, 2004

From Pickups to Sidewalks, Smith College Engineers
Are Designing the Future

Design Projects Are First Real-World Test of Innovative Engineering Curriculum

Editor's note: To arrange interviews with the students or with their liaisons at Ford, GE Plastics, Metcalf & Eddy, MITRE and the City of Northampton, contact Laurie Fenlason at (413) 585-2190 or Reporters are invited to attend the students' formal presentations of their projects on April 30 at the Smith College Campus Center.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- The Ford F-150 pickup truck is the most popular vehicle ever built.

Smith College students are making it better.

Seniors in Smith's Picker Engineering Program -- the first and only engineering program at a U.S. women's college -- are collaborating with designers at Ford Motor Company to increase the recycled content in the F-150 pickup for the 2008 model year. The Ford project is one of five design challenges Smith students are tackling in their Engineering Design Clinic, a year-long capstone course that provides graduating seniors the chance to work in teams on real-world projects sponsored by industry and government.

Like the Ford project, the other four challenges address similarly pressing issues: reduction of nitrogen levels in New York City's treated wastewater, increased energy efficiency in GE Plastics facilities, development of an emergency response database for MITRE Corporation, and design of a city sidewalk to improve schoolchildren's safety.

It's no coincidence that the five projects reflect a commitment to benefiting society.

"At Smith, we're preparing our graduates to apply science and math to serve humanity," explains Picker Program Director Domenico Grasso. "That's not just a hope for the future. It's a key organizing principle of our curriculum."

The Ford team, led by Aruna Sarma, is focusing its efforts on increasing the recycled content in the F-150s' seat foam. Many U.S. vehicles now incorporate recycled steel and aluminum, but the non-metallic portions are still largely created of virgin materials that end up landfilled at the end of the vehicles' lives. The team's recommendations -- which the students will present to Ford executives at the company's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters in April -- will be based on an evaluation of quality, recyclability, availability and economic feasibility.

"The new materials must be readily available and cost effective," Sarma explains. "And they must perform just as well, or better, than the materials they're replacing. "

Cost-effective environmental benefit is also the focus of a senior design project in Long Island Harbor. Working with the environmental engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy, a team led by Caitlyn Shea is designing a biological reactor to reduce the concentration of nitrogen in treated wastewater streams in New York City. The team will deliver a mathematical reactor model that will address performance and stability considerations as well as capital and operating costs.

The team aims for a model that "can be used for design," Shea explains, "so that plants can remove enough nitrogen to allow the treated stream to be discharged safely into the Harbor without adversely affecting the ecosystem."

While Shea and her colleagues focus on groundwater contaminants, Danielle Tsou and teammates are concerned with air pollution. Seeking to lower its energy costs and to respond to national imperatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, GE Plastics asked Smith engineers to design and implement an energy efficiency protocol for use in its office buildings and production facilities. Focusing on lighting and ancillary equipment, Tsou's team has gathered extensive data from the firm's Pittsfield, Mass., office complex. They are designing a tool to assess and improve energy efficiency that they will pilot at the firm's 450,000-square-foot, 500-employee facility in Selkirk, N.Y.

As Tsou points out, "the best solution balances economic and environmental imperatives. It's a given that we have to know the science behind energy reduction. But we'll also be using return-on-investment calculations to prioritize our results."

Assessing priorities is quite familiar to another group of Smith engineers. Becky Silverstein and colleagues are collaborating with the Department of Public Works in Northampton, Mass., Smith College's hometown, to design a 4,000-foot sidewalk along a busy roadway near two public schools. As the students have discovered, most citizens endorse measures to increase schoolchildren's safety -- except, perhaps, when they require the taking of private land, the removal of trees or the diversion of utilities.

"Designing a public sidewalk may seem like a straightforward thing," Silverstein says, "but there's much more to consider than you might think, such as freeze/thaw ratings, reinforcements, grade and setbacks."

In addition to addressing these issues, Silverstein and her team will facilitate citizen involvement in the project, hosting several public forums to solicit feedback.

Public safety issues are also at the center of Smith students' collaboration with MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center based in the Washington, D.C., area. Recognizing the need for better emergency-response information, MITRE is working with a Smith team led by Julia Packer to develop an Internet-accessible database of local emergency resources such as shelters, hospital beds and fire-fighting equipment. Intended for use by first responders, the database will integrate and standardize data from many different sources and will allow small towns to pool resources and coordinate responses.

"In a time of crisis, effective access to accurate information is vital," Packer notes.

The goal of the Engineering Design Clinic, explains Design Clinic Professor Susannah Howe, is for students "to approach engineering holistically and recognize that good engineering design requires a balance of technical acumen and other skills."

"In addition to producing a design solution or product for their sponsors, students also learn first-hand about the design process in an applied setting," Howe says. They exercise their technical skills, she notes, while learning "the importance of societal impact, human factors, teamwork, communication and leadership."

Established in 1999, Smith College's Picker Engineering Program is focused on developing broadly educated, well-rounded engineers capable of assuming leadership roles in corporations, non-profit organizations and technology-related fields. The first class of engineering majors will graduate in May, earning bachelor's degrees in engineering science.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country


Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Marti Hobbes
News Assistant
T (413) 585-2190
F (413) 585-2174

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