Freshmen Challenged with Sustainability Projects

SOCORRO, N.M. January 26, 2012 – The new Living/Learning Community program at New Mexico Tech is off to a flying start.

Specialist Susan Cordova said the pilot program with 39 students has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from the participants.

 The Living/Learning Community faculty team meets weekly to discuss integrating physics, math and engineering. From left are math professor Dr. Steve Schaffer, environmental engineering professor Dr. Frank Huang and physics professor Dr. Sharon Sessions.

The program puts a group of students in the same residential hall – South Hall’s second floor – and has them taking the same three classes together and sharing a year-long research project.

The theme for this year’s program is sustainability. During the first semester, the Learning Community students broke into teams and conducted audits of energy and water consumption in Brown Hall, South Hall and the Domenici Building (the NRAO).

“The students learned what information is needed to understand the efficiency of a building,” said Dr. Frank Huang of the Environmental Engineering Department. “How energy efficient is Brown Hall? It’s very inefficient. There are a lot of improvements that could be made to lower energy consumption and lower the bills.”

The students surveyed buildings on campus to examine their energy efficiency and water use in the fall. During the current semester, the groups will build photovoltaic and wind turbine systems on the roof of MSEC and monitor their power generation.

“They have way more freedom than a freshman normally gets,” Cordova said. “They’re choosing from different types of solar panels and wind turbines, designing supports and determining where they should be placed on the roof. They’re excited because they’re doing real hands-on research. They have the freedom and the responsibility to take their success in their own hands by thinking through what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how to do it. They’re not following canned labs. They’re learning to think critically, which is important for success at New Mexico Tech and in their future careers.”

Cordova knows what it’s like to be a new student at Tech. She earned two degrees at Tech – a bachelor’s in psychology in 1995 and a master’s in biology in 1998.

 Learning Community students pose with photovoltaic cells and a wind turbine during class Tuesday. Dr. Frank Huang passed out the components to student teams this week. From left are Marika Plugge, Vanessa McDaniel, Alex Mayer and Martin Listy.

The Learning Community students took three classes together during the fall semester: Math 103, Chemistry 109 and Environmental Engineering 189. In the spring, most of the Learning Community students are in another three classes together: Math 104, Environmental Engineering 189 and Physics 189. (Some students moved straight to Calculus I). Each course is linked with a research theme of sustainability.

Huang is leading the research project. He meets with math professor Dr. Steve Schaffer, chemistry professor Dr. Jeff Altig and physics professor Dr. Sharon Sessions to review the integration of science and math concepts into the practical application within the energy project.

“This is a research course, which is kind of unique because seldom do we have research courses for freshmen,” Huang said. “We want to do a much better job in terms of integration of math, chemistry and physics early on.”

This semester, Huang is teaching about photovoltaics, wind power and their practical uses on a residential scale. Students will select a system, then construct and install the system and monitor it for the second half of the semester.

“This is really exciting because I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Huang said. “Look around campus and we don’t use this energy at all – a few solar panels on campus and certainly no wind turbines.”

Each of 10 teams of students will divvy up four wind turbines (vertical- and horizontal-axis) and six photovoltaic systems (monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film). The 10 groups will connect their energy-producing unit to a battery, which will power multiple 2-foot-by-3-foot greenhouses on the MSEC roof.

“They have to know quite a bit,” Huang said. “In addition to the major equipment, they were given a budget. They have a choice to buy a tracker to track the sun, but that will deplete their budget and not allow them to do other things.”

Additionally, each team will predict how much electricity they can produce and then design and build their energy-producing apparatuses. The winner will be the group that most accurately predicts the energy production of their design.

“The emphasis is hands-on,” Huang said. “In our first class of the [spring] semester, I said, ‘You were playing with toys last semester. Now we’re playing with adult toys.’ You can feel the excitement.”

 Learning Community students spend much time together outside of class working on their mutual class projects. Above, Shawna Glover, Curtis Steele and Omar Hurab work on math recitations in Cramer Hall.

Cordova said the “toys” last semester included relatively inexpensive small HOBO sensors for light and temperature, and various instruments to measure the energy expenditure of plug-in appliances in the target buildings.

“Now they will be handling residential-size solar panels and wind turbines that are actually generating electricity,” she said. “They impressed me last semester, and I think they can handle the responsibility and enjoy the experience and opportunity this semester. The added incentive that competition brings between groups adds even more excitement.”

The Learning Community has another key component: a contingent of “Learning Coaches” – upperclassmen who sit in and aid the Learning Community classes and serve as tutors for the freshmen.

“These are successful upperclassmen who have several roles,” Cordova said. “They’re tutors in the evenings and they help with labs, but they also act as role models. They’ve gotten to know the freshmen and become friends and they’ve been mentors on how to succeed at Tech. Many of these freshmen have never had to study or do homework before. The rigors of the New Mexico Tech curriculum have been quite a shock to their systems.”

Based on a survey of students, Cordova has learned that the freshmen consider the Learning Community to be an excellent way to meet friends and become acquainted with the campus community.

“They’ve found it extremely helpful to be right next door to each other,” she said. “When they need help on a math problem, they don’t have far to go for help.”

The Title V grant funded the creation of a Learning Lounge in South Hall for LLC students. Cordova said the new space has been. The ease of finding help from fellow Living/Learning Community members and Learning Coaches have been critical components to the success of the LLC

“From my own experience as a Techie, I know how hard it is to ask for and accept help,” Cordova said. “The LLC is meant to make this easier at the freshman level so that it will, in turn, be easier to ask for help at the sophomore level and beyond. That alone could increase retention and graduation rates.”

The Learning Community program is funded by the Title V Undergraduate Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That $3.4 million, five-year grant was awarded in 2009. Tech’s goal is to create five Learning Communities, create five study labs and install 10 high-tech, interactive Smart Classrooms that will be available for all undergraduate programs, not just those within the Living/Learning Communities.

The 2012-2013 Learning Community program will be expanded to three cohorts. The sustainability theme will continue and two additional themes will be added: a computer science group and an Earth science group. The computer science students will create a new Android application specific to promoting learning productivity for all Tech students. The Earth science group will work with the theme of “Spaceship Earth,” taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying how the planet works and how civilization depends on it.

Incoming freshman can apply to participate in the 2012-13 Living/Learning communities, regardless of major. Each LLC has a math requirement and the students must live in South Hall.

“We had our first official application for next year’s Learning Community within 24 hours of posting the new information,” Cordova said. “Word is spreading about the benefits of these types of student success programs, and this is very exciting.

“I’ve found that having been to Tech myself has been invaluable in relating to these freshman,” she said. “It may have been 20 years ago, but I still remember how it felt. I wish Living/Learning Communities had been around back then.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech