By Leslie Mertz
Over the past three years, industrial and manufacturing engineering students from Flint, MI-based Kettering University have helped the nearby Harvesting Earth Educational Farm become a working example of green living. Their success is due in part to back-to-back $50,000 Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3) grants.
In October, the Ford Motor Company Fund named the Kettering farm project as its first-ever repeat recipient of the prestigious and highly competitive grant. Colleges from across the country submit proposals, and the Ford Fund awards no more than five each year. The theme for the Ford C3 grant is “building sustainable communities,” and proposals must incorporate significant student input, involvement and leadership from beginning to end.
The Ford Fund chose Kettering’s partnership with the farm for the grants in 2010 and 2011 because of the strength of each year’s projects, says Mike Schmidt, director of Education and Community Development, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Kettering was able to get awards in two straight years for the same partnership, which is a testament to the skill and ability of the Kettering students and the worthiness of the Harvesting Earth Educational Farm,” says Schmidt.
Capstone course takes on farming
The Kettering students are part of a senior design class, called a capstone course, which challenges the students to use what they have learned in their courses and through their co-op work experience to evaluate the facilities and operations of various industries from an efficiency standpoint. They then identify areas that can use improvement and develop solutions, says course instructor Matthew Sanders, Ph.D., professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Kettering.
In 2008, Sanders and his students became involved with the Harvesting Earth farm. At that time, the farm’s owner, who was familiar with previous projects the Kettering capstone students had done, approached Sanders about making its agriculture operation a more sustainable one. Located just north of Flint, the farm helps local teens learn about agriculture and the importance of buying local by employing them to plant, tend and harvest crops. The 15-acre farm, which includes two greenhouses, grows and sells pesticide- and herbicide-free produce year-round.
The farm is a program of Youth Karate-Ka, a nonprofit self-defense school. “We named it Harvesting Earth because we wanted to not only harvest vegetables and fruits from the ground, but we also wanted to harvest the sun through solar (systems), we wanted to harvest the warmth of the earth through geo(thermal) and we wanted to harvest our rainwater in cisterns,” says Dora King, co-director of Karate-Ka and the farm program. “We think it’s important for the kids to realize just how much power they have if they start to cultivate all of these things that are here for us.”
Students roll up their sleeves
The capstone students jumped right in, Sanders says. “The ideas and the planning and the design were all done by the students. As an example, for the geothermal system, which will keep things a little warmer in the winter, the students look at the different crops the farm is producing in the greenhouses to see which greenhouse should have what temperature based on the crop they are producing. For the water well, my students do the research to determine how many feet down we have to dig the well, what kind of pump will provide enough water, whether it is cost-effective, how long the well has to work in order to make sure it is cost-effective and the entire technical side of it.”
Overall, Sanders says, “The purpose of this particular project is to take the greenhouse operation to the next level. We want to take the farm off the grid.”
Last year’s Ford C3 grant helped fund the students’ solar and geothermal work at the farm, Ford’s Schmidt says. “This year’s project focuses on the water needs of the farm, providing sustainable solutions — rainwater collection and other means — in this area. The kinds of models that the Kettering students are exploring will hopefully serve as models that can be implemented in urban areas around the nation and the globe,” he says.
A model in sustainability
Sanders is already developing an educational outreach program and website (greenworks-kettering.com) based on the green projects at the farm. The goal is to showcase the benefits of alternative-energy projects on a large and small scale. “For example, if we can show how we warmed up the greenhouses, which have almost no insulation, by 10-15 degrees in the winter, maybe we can get somebody to think, ‘This could really work in my house, which already has lots of insulation.’” Beyond that, he hopes they can also encourage leaders in the government or school systems to look at alternative energy as viable possibilities.
According to Sanders, the Ford C3 grants have provided necessary financial support. “We really need to thank Ford for doing this,” he says. “Anything like the solar panels, the geothermal, the irrigation, it all requires some money, and so this funding from Ford will help to implement those ideas.” Sanders says the money will also go to the design and maintenance of the educational website and related educational outreach efforts at area elementary, middle and high schools.
Nurturing new relationships
“Working with Kettering has been great on a lot of different levels,” King says. “They’ve been an active part of our renewable energy since we started and have helped us with the solar, the geo and our rain catchments.” Beyond the green improvements, she says, the Kettering students are having a noticeable impact on the teens in the farm program. “Our teenagers, who are 16, 17, and 18 years old, relate to the early 20s, so the Kettering students are like their big brothers and big sisters. There’s a bond and bridge that’s been built there,” she says. “You would not believe how many of our teens now are interested in going to Kettering. They’re saying, ‘Maybe I will be an engineer.’”
Kettering students profit tremendously, too, Sanders says.
“Students learn to think outside of the box.” They discover that they can use the tools they have learned through their courses and co-op experience in many different ways for many different industries, he says. “They learn that tools are tools, but how you use them — the application — is important.”