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Students win environmental challenge competition

Closeup of WSU's Environmental Challenge team
Environmental Challenge team, including (l-r) Alyssa Bailey, Emma Hein, Lijun Wright, and Geneva Schlepp. This photo was taken outdoors.

How are communities going to ready themselves for climate change, extreme weather events, having too much or too little water, and assuring energy supplies for 21st century lifestyles? 

The challenges of the future can certainly seem daunting, but a group of students in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering recently brought together their varying experiences to develop creative sustainable solutions, taking the top prize in the 2021 Pacific Northwest Air & Wastewater Management Association Environmental Challenge.

The competition asks students to solve a real-world problem in a practical, economically viable, and environmentally responsible way. For this year’s competition, the students were asked to develop ideas to address climate change challenges of changing water availability and increased extreme weather events for a small community with a typically small city budget. 

And, while they came up with their engineering solutions, they also had to answer hard questions from their fictitious community, such as how much everything is going to cost, how to balance stakeholder groups’ varying needs, and how their work might affect inequities. 

For their projects, the team, including seniors Geneva Schlepp, Alyssa Bailey, Emma Hein, and Lijun Wright, came up with plans to minimize water loss, including conducting a water audit on the municipal distribution system. They developed plans for sustainable farming practices for wheat and potato farmers, wastewater effluent re-use, and rainwater capture and re-use. They also advocated fortifying the electric power grid from extreme events by putting power lines underground and pursuing new energy sources, including biomass, geothermal, and renewable natural gas. 

The students all brought skills to the interdisciplinary project that they have gleaned from a wide variety of internship experiences during their college years. Wright has interned at Avista Utilities and at Century West Engineering, an engineering consulting firm. Hein worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources in Port Angeles, Washington, doing forest management work and designing culverts and logging roads. Bailey had internships at Schweitzer Engineering Labs as well as at the City of Pullman, where she helped to map infrastructure in the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) software system. Schlepp, meanwhile worked at RH2 Engineering and The Land Group where she learned about water system audits and helped to develop a site plan for biological wastewater treatment.

“We were able to divide up the project, so that Geneva and I worked on the water issues, while Li and Alyssa did the energy issues,” said Hein. “That ended up working out really, really well.”

“It was really cool to get to collaborate and understand each of our individual backgrounds,” Schlepp said. “Just from our internships, we really have been exposed to a lot of cool solutions. To put those forward and propose them for a city and to make a practical, feasible plan to put in place was really exciting.”

The students are all passionate about doing work in environmental engineering, said Bailey. The competition provided networking opportunities and a real-world and interdisciplinary experience that they expect will be part of their future workplaces. As environmental engineering consultants, someday soon they may have to go to city council meetings and public hearings and make their critically important, sustainable plans palatable for their community. 

“The project made us wear a lot of different hats,” Schlepp said. “We were asked questions about environmental justice and things that are really important to be well-rounded engineers, but they definitely took me aback because we don’t necessarily think about things that way in class.” 

“You have to attempt to please all parties and consider all the socio-economic political implications of your decisions, and that’s something that we don’t talk about a lot in an engineering college,” Hein said. “And, it’s super important.” 

The students hope to recruit other engineering students to participate in the professional society next year. Courtney Gardner, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the group’s advisor. 

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