Mechanical engineering students get pumped up to find solutions

There’s nothing quite like firsthand experience, as UCCS mechanical engineering students are discovering in their senior capstone class.

Under the leadership of Peter Gorder, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Engineering and Chair of the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, students Alexa Boerger, Jeff Holloway, Kristyn Kelly and Isaac Payne recently concluded a trip to Uganda where they partnered with the local population to devise a better system for obtaining freshwater from nearby Lake Bunyonyi.

The project is part of Gorder’s capstone program and aims to teach students how to approach real-world engineering problems with more complex constraints than the classroom can provide. With the help of Global Livingston Institute (GLI), a Colorado-based nonprofit aiming to rethink philanthropic efforts by listening to and involving the local communities as much as possible, the cohort spends five days onsite to put in place the plans they spend much of their fall semester coming up with.

“Every ​single ​student ​that’s ​graduated ​with ​a ​mechanical ​engineering ​degree ​from ​UCCS ​has ​gone ​through ​my ​senior ​design ​program,” explained Gorder. “What ​we’re ​doing ​is ​giving ​them ​real ​problems ​to ​address, and one ​of ​the ​first ​things ​that ​they ​discover ​is ​that ​real ​problems ​don’t ​fit ​into ​neat, ​little ​discipline-​specific ​boxes. They ​don’t ​know ​what ​they ​need ​to ​know ​to ​solve ​the ​problem. ​No ​matter ​what ​problem ​they ​face, ​they’re ​going ​to ​have ​to ​learn ​in ​order ​to ​be ​able ​to ​solve ​it.”

This method ensures the students are learning skills beyond design and mechanics like communication, project planning and management, how to adapt and improvise, working on a team and other qualities that can be limited by classroom curriculum. It also prepares students to consider cultural differences and how to navigate them.

The water pump scenario exemplifies why this method is so effective for building those skills. While the technical aspect of the project – transporting water – isn’t difficult at surface level, the challenge comes from finding a solution that is accessible and sustainable for the local community long term, can be designed here at UCCS and then implemented in the five short days the students are on location in Uganda.

The system needed to be easy to replicate, made with materials locals could easily obtain, designed to work without power, transport the water in a way that kept it safe for drinking and many other specifications. By involving the residents of the area as much as possible, the students learn both how to ask the right questions for a design and what is truly the best course of action for specific circumstances.

“If you don’t understand the people, you don’t understand the limitations and the constraints,” Gorder emphasized. “What we are endeavoring to do is to improve the situation, not solve the problem, and we want the local folks involved in every step of it from the very beginning to the very end.”

After much deliberation and many conversations, the students and locals decided on a hand-crank water pump that they could build using locally sourced materials.

“The team had come across this Wirtz pump,” said Gorder. “If we could figure out how to make that work for them on the lake, that is something that they could then replicate. We had really talented folks from the area, and they brought a very skilled carpenter who picked up on the idea for the structure right away and built it really well. We also hired a local plumber employed by GLI to work with us, and he was awesome and even came up with a way to improve the pump design using materials available in the area. When we were done, he and the other residents who’d worked with us were so excited and eager to share the design.”

This isn’t the first project with the Lake Bunyonyi population, with previous student cohorts taking on other community initiatives like devising a better system for storing rainwater and building a cellar for root vegetable storage. To store water, a large plastic cistern was built using locally sourced bricks, and for the vegetable storage issue, a cellar was constructed with a similar structure also erected here on campus by the UCCS Farm.

The partnership with GLI is also one of many the engineering program has in place, with some as near as local companies down the street and others as far away as Sweden, where Swedish students from Linkoping University (LiU) partnered with UCCS students to design a scientific payload to be sent into space. The Swedish students focused on designing the payload package, while UCCS students foucsed on the scientific payload, itself. At the initiation of the project, the UCCS students went to Sweden to meet their project sponsor, the Swedish Space Corporation, as well as their LiU teammates to learn more about each other, which Gorder emphasizes is crucial to successful collaboration and the design process.

“I take the students onsite at the beginning of the semester so that they can see their company sponsor, meet with them, get an overview of what the project is intended to address and meet their teammates,” he said. “What my colleague in Sweden and I have absolutely, unequivocally learned is that while these remote interaction tools are great for maintaining cohesiveness of a team, they can’t establish a cohesive, collaborative team. You need to know the people that you’re working with.”

That’s certainly been the case with the Lake Bunyonyi population, evident in the success of the water pump. Gorder expects future cohorts will continue working with the area residents as there are several potential projects to undertake, such as finding a way to provide more light for the region after dark as students currently struggle completing their homework and other issues from the lack of light or power.

“We will continue to do projects with GLI,” Gorder noted. “They’ve got programs going on in other places in Uganda that we may spread out to, but we’re also happy to continue focusing on Lake Bunyonyi. There’s no shortage of possible projects for our students to help address.”

About the UCCS College of Engineering and Applied Science

The College of Engineering and Applied Science enrolls more than 1,700 students and offers 23 engineering and computer science degrees, ranging from bachelor to doctoral. The college is a Department of Homeland Security / National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense and works closely with the National Cybersecurity Center and with more than 250 aerospace and defense, information technology, cybersecurity and engineering organizations in the Pikes Peak region. Learn more about the College of Engineering and Applied Science at UCCS.