• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


When "greening" isn't

Questions about a capstone project....

May 2, 2013

One of my recently established rituals to celebrate the end of the Spring semester is attending capstone presentations by graduating Seniors (either individually or in teams) on a number of campuses. Some of the students are studying the arts or the humanities, but far more major in science, technology or engineering (no math presentations yet -- maybe some day).

This week, I was at a presentation session that went most of the business day, with more than a dozen teams of students presenting.  It was on a campus about 25 miles west of here (which in Wyoming might be synonymous with "right next door", but in New England is generally interpreted as "quite a distance away").  The students had completed a variety of engineering projects, but one of the titles which had piqued my interest included the words "greening initiative".  Had I only known . . .

The project, which appears to have significant roots in the real world (unlike a couple of the presentations that day) purported to address specific problems on the campus of a private school considerably to our south.  Those problems were characterized by de-vegetation, erosion and water pollution in and around two ponds on campus.  The root cause of the problems was identified as the (recently year-round) presence of a flock of Canada Geese.

Now these were engineering students, not geologists, physical geographers, environmental scientists or landscape architects.  And, as is often the case, the project was handed to the engineering team when the "what's our problem" and "what should we do about it" high-level questions were pretty much answered.  Thus, the challenge put to the team was to figure out how best (what technologies, what techniques, what methods) and at what cost in dollars and time to implement the already-determined high-level solution.  I figured that was the case, and I didn't ask questions which would raise doubts, concerns or regrets in the minds of the students.

However, as a real-world project that purports to be (at least part of) a "greening initiative", this one had some obvious problems.  It probably should have been still-borne.  Some of the facts I was able to discern: 

  • The ponds in question are totally artificial.  They're located on a hillside somewhat above the elevation of the main campus buildings.
  • The ponds aren't self-sustaining in any sense of that term.  No stream flows into them, no stream flows out of them, no spring refreshes them, no watershed supports them.  The only reason there's any water at all in these ponds is that the school operates a well pump for several hours every day or two.  The water thus pumped slowly seeps into the ground into which the ponds were dug.
  • The ponds serve no discernible purpose other than -- perhaps -- artificially supporting some sort of rural aesthetic.  Students don't visit the ponds (they're surrounded by marshy land, due to seepage).  No experiments or other educational activities are conducted at the ponds.  Operating those pumps to keep the ponds filled is a task of which Sisyphus might be proud.
  • The campus is on a known flyway for migrating birds.  Put a pond on a flyway and you get geese.  You might get ducks and other birds as well, but you're pretty sure to get geese.  Creating two moderately large ponds and then complaining about geese is like leaving cat food on the porch all night and then complaining about varmints.  It displays an astounding level of ignorance (or maybe arrogance).

To give the engineering students their due, the team designed in as many sustainability- and education-related elements as they reasonably could.  But the real solution, from a sustainability perspective, would be to fill the fool ponds in and be done with it.  Do some natural landscaping, shut the pumps down forever, solve the seepage problem, bury the organic matter (mostly goose effluent) at the heart of the pollution problem, perhaps build an educational case study around the issue.

As I said, the engineering team often gets brought into a project once the high-level questions are already answered, at which point the project sponsor doesn't much want to revisit every project decision that's already been made.  Still, I've seen a lot of projects achieve type 2 (solution implemented, problem not resolved) or type 3 (solution implemented, problem merely relocated) failures because no one assigned to do implementation ever questioned (I prefer the term "tested") high-level problem analysis or solution determination decisions.  It's a bit of a balancing act, and I wouldn't expect undergraduates (regardless of discipline) to handle it effectively.  I just wish I'd thought of a good way of getting the students to question the meaning of "greening initiative" in their project title, even if they subsequently and obediently went forth to engineer the right solution to the wrongly-defined problem.

Sigh . . .


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