Environmental Engineering Team Recognized For Design Project

SOCORRO, N.M. November 4, 2010 – Four New Mexico Tech students capped an ambitious senior thesis project with a professional presentation to the American Water Works Association in Rio Rancho recently.
 Christine Polo, Sean Menk, Clayton Freed and Amelia Symonds at the Student Design Competition in May. The four students won second place and later were invited to give their presentation in Keystone, Colo., and Rio Rancho.

The environmental engineering students earned second place and widespread accolades in May at the third annual Rocky Mountain Student Design Competition, which was sponsored by Rocky Mountain section of the American Water Works Association and the Rocky Mountain Water Environment Association. Sean Menk, Clayton Freed, Christine Polo and Amelia Symonds used the design competition as their senior thesis project to design a new water treatment facility for the City of Denver.

As the runners-up in the competition, the quartet was invited to present their research project to the regional American Water Works Association conference in Keystone, Colo., in September. From that presentation, they were invited to deliver their presentation to the local American Water Works Association chapter meeting in Rio Rancho. Their 150-page report and 20-minute presentation) detailed their engineering design and economic analysis research about either retro-fitting an aging water plant in Denver or building a new plant.

“This was a great real-world experience,” Menk said. “We had a chance to tackle a real-world problem and see what challenges came up rather than a textbook problem.”

Dr. Frank Huang, who teaches classes in water and wastewater treatment engineering, said he encourages seniors to take on practical, real-world projects. This team learned about the RMWEA competition and threw themselves into the project. Huang said the four team members worked every day late into the evening for more than four months. In comparison, the Denver Water staff engineers spent 15 to 18 months developing a report of similar scope and detail.

A graduate of Sandia Prep in Albuquerque, Menk said the project was intense for several reasons. Each of the four team members tackled different processes, so integrating the four separate projects was the biggest challenge. The deadlines were tight also, so the team worked many late hours to get the project done on time. The students got advise and technical support from their research advisor, Dr. Huang, the competition organizers and engineers at the Albuquerque water utility.

“Dr. Huang helped us a lot,” Menk said about the team’s research advisor. “He stayed an entire night with us and even brought us food. Anytime we had questions, he was always willing to help. He was a huge help.”

Polo, a native of Panama, and Symonds, from Farmington, finished their bachelor’s degrees in May. Symonds is back in school in Albuquerque. Polo completed a summer internship with Black and Veatch in Kansas City and was later hired by the same firm as a process engineer.

Freed, who is from Phoenix, and Menk are finishing their bachelor’s studies and expect to finish in May 2011.

The 2010 competition marked the first time Tech students had competed in the Student Design Competition. At the initial presentation in Denver, the Tech team only presented to a handful of judges and Association staff members. After all the college teams presented their projects, the Denver utility staff engineers then presented their official recommendations.

“It was really interesting to see their thought processes and how they approached it a little different,” Menk said. “They had to consider a lot of details in their decisions.”

The Tech team selected a sand-based filtration process, while some of the other teams selected a membrane-based system. The Denver utility engineers are still debating which method to use.

The Denver utility company must replace or retrofit the Moffett Water Treatment Plant, which does not meet state-mandated design criteria. The competition asked students to study both options and make a recommendation. Menk said the Tech team examined engineering design principles, cost analysis and non-cost social factors.

“In the end, while retrofit was cheaper, we recommended building a new plant as the better option based on several factors, including social impacts,” Menk said.

When they got to the Keystone conference, they were greeted with a standing-room-only crowd of professional engineers.

“That was definitely a big shock – how many people there were,” Menk said. “We wanted to represent the school well and I think we did. We got a lot of positive feedback.”

Huang said he received effusive praise from many people about the Tech students’ presentation. Industry leaders – including vice presidents of major consulting firms – said they’d hire any of the four Tech students, Huang said.

“The whole room was full and they performed super,” Huang said. “They showed the students and faculty from other schools that New Mexico Tech is a very strong technical school and we can do a very good job at competitions. I am really proud of them.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech