From Pickups to Sidewalks, Smith College
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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
"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
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
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