Freshmen Loving Their Hands-On Research Project

SOCORRO, N.M. April 19, 2012 – The new Living-Learning Community program will reach its big finale in coming weeks. Three dozen freshmen will see how well they predicted the power output from their solar panels and wind turbines atop MSEC, with the winning team earning Tech merchandise and bragging rights.


Lee Abeyta, (from left) Casey Lee and Vanessa McDaniel assemble their wind turbine as Learning Coach Tyler Robinson (right) assists.



Jarrett Crews and Max Baymiller discuss their strategy.



Martin Listy and Chris Sanchez carry the frame for their solar panels across the MSEC roof.



Thumbs up! Adri Gabaldon, (from left) Bill Feilner, Omar Hurab, and Libby McGavran pose with their completed set-up.


Curtis Steele, (from left) Learning Coach Lindsay “Z” Gilbert, James Walton (hidden), Steven Stelly work on putting together their wind turbine.


Photos by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

Students in the class all said that they appreciated the hands-on nature of the project, the engineering, problem-solving and teamwork.

“This is a real engineering experience,” said Max Baymiller, a freshman from Silver City. “We’re learning from our mistakes and that’s what engineering is all about. We’re working out problems as a group.”

Baymiller jumped at the chance to join the Living-Learning Community because he came to Tech with an interest in sustainability.

“This is something I like,” he said. “Plus, who’s going to deny a chance to do research as a freshman.”

Environmental Engineering Professor Dr. Frank 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.”

Huang has been teaching about photovoltaics, wind power and their practical uses on a residential scale. Students selected a system, then constructed and installed the system, including small greenhouses that are home to a few vegetable plants. They have been monitoring their power-generation since setting up their systems. Huang said the project benefited from technical assistance from Facilities Management and Williams Windmill, a company in Lemitar.

“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 – no solar panels on campus and certainly no wind turbines.”

Each of 10 teams of students divvied up four wind turbines and six photovoltaic cells – of three different varieties. The 10 groups connected their energy-producing unit to a battery, which will powered a 2-foot-by-3-foot greenhouse. Throughout March and April, the roof of MSEC has been abuzz with activity on Wednesday afternoons and into the evenings – sometimes until 8 p.m.

The winners – the team that made the best power-output estimation – will be announced at a special awards celebration in May.

Marika Plugge, a freshman from Albuquerque, said the project has been fun and rewarding. Her team is growing a few chile plants – because this is New Mexico, after all, she said.

“I think this project is amazing,” Plugge said. “This is the best experience I’ve ever had. I did the SuperComputing Challenge in high school; but, this, by far, is the most research I’ve done. It gets the brain working on how to work through problems and that’s fun.”

She said she has worked on the project an average of about eight hours per week.

“This isn’t for lazy people,” Plugge said. “We work hard, but it’s worth it and you get so much out of it.”

LLC Director Susan Cordova said, “They have lots of freedom. They’re designing supports and determining where they should be placed on the roof. They’re excited because they’re doing hands-on stuff. They have the freedom to really work. They’re not following canned labs. They’re developing their own routines.”

Huang said research projects require three things: the courage to engage, confidence in one’s abilities and knowledge and perseverance.

“I’m impressed with what these freshmen have done,” Huang said. “When you hit a wall, you can’t stop and give up. I’m really proud of them because they have shown the perseverance to finish up this project. Especially with freshmen, that speaks a lot.”

A core group presented a talk at the Student Research Symposium on Friday, April 13. Huang said they performed on the level of seniors.

“I didn’t expect it, but they were really good,” Huang said.

Cordova said the pilot program has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from the participants. The “community” included a group of students living in the same dorm – South Hall’s second floor. The group took the same three classes and sharing a year-long research project in 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 AOC Building (the MRO offices). They surveyed buildings on campus to examine their energy efficiency and water use.

The students also 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). Each course is linked with a research theme of sustainability.

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 can knock on a door and ask a classmate for help. That’s been extremely beneficial to them.”

Gabrielle Gutierrez, who went to high school at Volcano Vista in Albuquerque, said the overall Living-Learning Community experience has been very positive.

“This represents a real experience, working with a diverse group of people,” she said. “It helps a lot when you need help on homework, especially at midnight; you have a roommate who is in the same classes.”

Donna Dominquez, from Los Lunas, said she’s enjoyed learning about solar power and how to harness the sun to drive the equipment. She also appreciates the closeness inherent in the Living-Learning Community routines.

“We’ve become friends,” she said. “We’re living together and working together. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but I recommend it.”

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 learning application specific for Tech students. The Earth science group will work with the theme of “Spaceship Earth,” taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying how the planet works.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech