Freshman engineers help save Rice trees

Thursday, February 16, 2012 1:52 PM | Anonymous

Late in the Fall 2011 semester, after a summer of record setting drought, six freshmen marched from the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen to the wooded space between Keck Hall and George R. Brown Hall, carrying coils of garden hose and three objects resembling oversized hula hoops.

As one student fastened the hose to an in-ground faucet, others wrapped the plastic hoops around the trunks of three oaks and connected them to the hose. When the signal was given, the valve was turned and out sprayed thin streams of water, soaking the ground beneath the drought-parched trees.


“The tough part was the consistency of the angles. We had to get the water coming out in the right direction, with the right amount of pressure,” said Devin Mahon, a mechanical engineering major.

The students were enrolled in Introduction to Engineering Design, ENGI 120, one of the first semester-long design courses offered to freshmen at Rice. Teams work on client-based design projects drawn from area hospitals, community partners, international communities and the campus.

The students named their team WATER – Watering All Trees Everywhere at Rice. Besides Mahon, the other members are, in bioengineering, Peter Yu; in chemical engineering, Junli Hao; in mechanical engineering and materials science, Fay Pauly, Oscar Turner, Rachel Wang.

Their goal was to work with the staff of Rice Facilities Engineering and Planning (FE&P) to develop an efficient watering system, one that conserves water while saving trees. The project was inspired by the ongoing drought in Texas.


The spray from the students’ device is aimed at the “drip line” of trees, the outermost circle on the ground where rain drips from leaves and branches. There, rather than nearer the trunk, is the most efficient and beneficial spot for supplying trees with water.

The team built three prototypes, finally settling on an optimal design of 10-foot lengths of PEX pipe, with holes measuring .043 inches drilled every 10 centimeters.

“That gave us the best, most even distribution of water,” Turner said.

Ann Saterbak, professor in the practice in bioengineering education, teaches the class.


“This group was very hard-working,” she said. “They stayed in constant communication and kept a positive, realistic outlook. They demonstrated impressive management skills and took the initiative to consult faculty and staff about the technical and logistical complexities of the project.”

She attributed the team’s success to “group trust and unwillingness to settle for an inadequate solution.”

ENGI 120, as it’s popularly known, started in spring 2011 with 20 students in the first class. By the fall, enrollment had doubled.

ENGI 120 introduces students to the engineering design process, and to working as a team. They work with "Apprentice Leaders" -- older students enrolled in Engineering 316. These coaches receive leadership training in the preceding semester in Engineering 315.

“ENGI 120 helps students put the rest of the engineering curriculum in context. The class whets their appetite for design but also shows them the need for technical knowledge within the design process,” said Mark Embree, director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and professor of computational and applied mathematics.

“We also anticipate,” he added, “that students will use their intensive team experience in ENGI 120 as a springboard for group work elsewhere in the curriculum and in student clubs.”

Grounds superintendent Ron Smith, with Rice FE&P, looks forward to trying out the WATER-designed watering device.

“We watched a demonstration and it looks as though they would be effective and useful on campus,” he said. “We’re not aware of anything like them currently on the market.”

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