The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Engineering Students Learn About Community Engagement with Hands-on Projects

installed irrigation valve cover

irrigation valve cover

In the fall of 2020, College of Engineering Engagement Specialist Dr. Stephen Fernandez offered a course for the first time on community engagement and engineering. In it, 10 students from all engineering disciplines came together to discuss social injustices within engineering and work with community partners to enable the work they are doing. As part of their coursework, students worked with four community based groups to assess their needs and to identify potential collaborative projects.

The four groups the class worked with were Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, the Compost Cooperative in Greenfield, Nuestras Raices Farm in Holyoke, and Riquezas del Campo in Hatfield.

In addition to identifying areas of future work, the students were able to focus on completing two projects demanding immediate attention – a tool for assessing new vehicles for the Compost Cooperative, and winterization protection for the irrigation system at Nuestras Raices. The community engagement students consulted closely with staff members from both projects and subsequently completed a market analysis spreadsheet for a new truck for the Compost Cooperative, and they drafted and built a valve cover for the Nuestras Raices Farm irrigation system.

For this second project at Nuestras Raices Farm, Biomedical Engineering major Allison Evans wrote a lovely and lucid report describing the work her team completed and its impacts on the participating students and the farm project itself.

As Evans explained, “La Finca-El Nuestras Raices Farm is a farm based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that serves the area’s low-income Puerto Rican community.”

Evans described how the farm helps to improve nutrition and agricultural awareness and promote small-scale agricultural, livestock, and food-preparation businesses. According to the farm’s website, “Our mission is to create healthy environments, celebrate “agri-culture,” harness our collective energy, and to advance our vision of a just and sustainable future.”

However, when the students began consulting with Nuestras Raices Executive Director Hilda Roque, they discovered that the farm has at least one crucial need: to protect the farm’s irrigation valves from winter temperatures and help keep the pipes from freezing and bursting, as had happened before.

“El Nuestras Raices’ most immediate concern was exposed irrigation valves that they wanted to cover,” wrote Evans. “The farm tasked the engineering students with designing a cover that could withstand the harsh Western Massachusetts weather conditions to keep the valves safe and working properly.”

Evans said that “The students had assessed the valves during a site visit to the farm, where they took the dimensions of the valves and assessed the areas they were located. The group then did research on current covers before designing their own.”

Subsequently, as Evans wrote, the engineering students came up with the comprehensive list of materials, instructions for their use and construction, and a cost analysis of the proposed cover. The students worked closely with the farm to ensure that the design was feasible to construct and use, and that materials were easy to access and within budget.

“The proposed design was an insulated wooden box with a hinged door that can be used year-round,” said Evans. “The box is insulated using tarp, foam, and other materials to ensure that cold and hot temperatures do not cause cracking.”

Evans reported that, in its final class period of the semester, the team presented and discussed its idea to the rest of the students, representatives from the community partners, and other professionals.

Because the students were unavailable during winter break, when the construction of the valve cover was needed to prepare for the coming winter, Fernandez and his son constructed it with a few modifications, including a sloped shape and the frame made of PVC instead of wood.

The farm’s staff members were delighted. “It looks amazing, thank you, and please thank the students for the design,” as Roque wrote to Fernandez. “We appreciate you guys so much. I’m crying with excitement!”

Meanwhile, Nuestras Raices Farm and Market Coordinator Sugeily Colon exclaimed, “It looks great! Thank you so much for all of your hard work. We are looking forward to doing more projects with you and your students in the near future.”

At the same time, Fernandez was enthused by the course evaluations he got from his students. As one student said so succinctly, “It lets engineers know that they have a social impact and responsibility.”

Another student evaluator wrote, “I feel that we are better prepared to develop sustainable and successful projects, and we are inherently more aware of the engineering impacts we have as students, soon to be professionals.” (February 2021)