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Engineering Students Help Campus Gardens Capture More Rainwater

All Cockrell School of Engineering students learn how to solve problems in the classroom, but the civil engineering students from Thomas Krueger’s spring engineering graphics course (ME 210) will see their solutions come to life on The University of Texas at Austin campus this fall.

The students worked on a class project to determine how to collect and store rainwater most efficiently for two on-campus gardens belonging to the Division of Housing and Food Service (DHFS) at Kinsolving and Brackenridge dormitories. The student recommendations and measurements helped DHFS design the new rainwater collection systems that the division is now putting in place for the gardens this fall.

krueger at kinsolving

Senior lecturer Thomas Krueger at the Kinsolving Garden.

“Every semester I have a civil engineering section, and I like to give them a project that is going to be relevant to their major,” Krueger said. “I’ve had them doing things like develop parking lots as well as taking measurements of buildings on campus to determine square footage of the roof to determine how much rainwater runs off of those roofs. This one happened to be a real-life project, so I jumped on it.”

First planted in 2009, Kinsolving Garden is managed by DHFS executive chef Robert Mayberry. The Jester South Garden, located along the wall of Brackenridge dormitory, broke ground this summer and will be ready for tending in the fall.

“The gardens supply fresh herbs and some produce to our dining facilities, but I think more importantly they allow interested students a place to begin the learning process [of gardening and sustainability],” Mayberry said.

The students in Krueger’s course were split into six teams, with three teams assigned to each roof. They were asked to determine how much water is produced per square foot per inch of rain, and then develop a water tank that would hold three months’ worth of average Austin rainfall for a section of the roof.

“Since these students are going to have to work with highway construction, parking lots, retention ponds and [other types of civil engineering projects], they need to know how much water comes off of an area of whatever it is they’re working with,” Krueger said. “They were just totally flabbergasted at the amount of water that comes off a roof.”

The Kinsolving garden previously held a 1,400-gallon tank, which is too small to accommodate the adequate storage of water. The new tank being ordered based on the students’ findings will hold 9,000 gallons of rainwater, which is significantly more than three months’ worth of average rainfall on the Kinsolving roof.

kinsolving garden

Above: Two models of the Kinsolving roof and patio from two student teams. Below: A model of the Brackenridge Dormitory, the roof of which will provide rainwater for the Jester South Garden that runs along the dorm. Both models were made using selective laser sintering, transferring the students' digital designs into plastic models.

brackenridge dorm

Alex Levine, civil engineering junior, said his team recommended a much larger tank for Kinsolving that would ultimately minimize maintenance costs. Features of his group’s proposed design included a manhole on top of the tank and a plastic or alloy material instead of the membrane material DHFS previously used. Each group’s design differed in both tank size and design, as well as which section of roofing students took into account for measurement.

Having the students calculate measurements and submit a variety of ideas helped in putting DHFS in line with its environmental goals, said Greg Moore, special projects manager for DHFS who worked with the measurements given by the students to help determine a plan of action for the gardens.

“This project undoubtedly gave the participating students some real-world experience helping to solve an actual problem,” Moore said. “The project assists DHFS with meeting our goal of minimizing the environmental impact of what we do each day by eliminating the need to use potable water on irrigating our gardens.”

The project allowed students to use software learned in class, such as Autodesk’s AutoCAD and Inventor, to draw up measurements and models for the designs. Civil engineering sophomore Ryan Klepser, whose team worked on a tank for the Kinsolving garden, said the task of solving a real-world problem in a first-year class was intimidating at first but ultimately rewarding.

“At the beginning of the project, there was definitely a sense of challenge. However, to really grow as student and an engineer, it requires us to get hands-on and experience it firsthand,” Klepser said. “There was a great sense of achievement among our group and we were very proud of the hard work and effort that went into our project.”

Scott Meyer, director of food service for DHFS, said although the students’ designs were the precursor for DHFS making changes, the division further refined the designs before implementing this fall.

“The student class gave us a starting point related to the rainwater availability,” Meyer said. “The final design went beyond the student projects to include reconfiguration of gutters, placement of the tanks, installation of delivery and filtering systems to use the rainwater in an effective manner and the use of solar pumps and solar irrigation controllers. This was a very complicated design.”

Having the opportunity to solve a real-world problem and contribute to the University while still in school, helped one of the students in Krueger’s class reaffirm his decision to major in engineering.

“It's easy to choose engineering as your field of interest,” Maasaki Julian Ward, civil engineering junior, said. “It's a whole different matter [to realize] whether you enjoy engineering. This project showed me that this is what I want to be doing.”

Both the Kinsolving tank, as well as a new solar-powered rainwater system at the Jester South Garden at the Brackenridge dorm will be completely in place this September.