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Capstone Class Project Wins Competition with Wastewater Solution

Water exists in many forms and places in Florida and a team of Civil and Environmental Engineering students' award-winning project is demonstrating how the College of Engineering can help local agencies protect that vital resource.

Students from Professor Sarina Ergas' Capstone Water Resources and Environmental Engineering Design class won first prize in the 2017 Florida Water Environment Association (FWEA) Wastewater Division Student Design Competition.

Septic tank systems on Snead Island (adjacent to the city of Palmetto in Manatee County) that are close to or beyond their expected operating life were the focus of the class project. The team consists of students majoring in civil engineering: Peter Zydek, Tyler Brenfleck, Steve Rousseau, Emanuel Delgado-Navarro and Mike Tavlin. The capstone class is co-taught by Adjunct Instructor Tom Cross, a senior project manager with Tetra Tech, a civil engineering company.

The class is conducted each spring and according to Ergas, is intended to give students experience in solving real world problems that expand their learning experience. The class undertakes several projects and two of them are selected to compete at FWEA's annual conference.
"We keep our eye out for projects that require students to go above and beyond what I expect of them in the class," she says.

Meeting the needs of a local community or agency is one goal of the projects and Ergas involves those stakeholders early in the process.

"We'll say to them, 'What are some of the problems you're dealing with?'"

Among the concerns voiced by representatives of Palmetto's Water and Sewer Department were the potential for contamination of Terra Ceia Bay from the aging septic tank systems servicing the majority of homes on nearby Snead Island and a desire to find an alternative to using septic tanks for domestic wastewater treatment there.

"Many of the septic systems had been installed even before the 1960s or were installed when regulations were less stringent," says Ergas, who adds that the Florida Department of Health would require any new or replacement septic systems to utilize drain mounds which are more expensive than the existing drain fields.

The nature of the design project gives students great autonomy for meeting the expectations of instructors and local agencies. As the team of students went to work, they soon discovered that real-world engineering is much different than completing homework assignments or studying for exams.

Like any engineering project, the design team required a manager to track progress and tie everything together and that task fell to environmental engineering grad student Peter Zydek, who says communication skills are a vital part of successfully getting the job done.

"I was on the phone a lot contacting a lot of professionals and vendors of products and keeping in communication with people working in a technical and administrative capacity."

Zydek also analyzed water samples and delivered the team's final presentation to Palmetto city officials.

"I got a lot of experience juggling a lot of things at once and just trying to get things done," he says. "It helped me grow in both a technical and administrative capacity."

Navigating the rules, regulations and laws related to the project became Stephen Rousseau's responsibility. Rousseau is a senior majoring in civil engineering.

"I was the legal analyst of the group and went through the Manatee County Department of Health requirements for sewage design and organizing existing records like state documents and regulations," says Rousseau, who adds that dealing with an existing situation and its attendant regulatory and legal constraints can yield innovation.

"We found how to make a sustainable irrigation system out of the old septic tanks and we looked into a variety of decentralized treatment plans so the island could be self-sustainable apart from the city."

As information was generated and collected, Manuel Delgado-Navarro, civil engineering senior, says he undertook the task of deriving useful information from the considerable volume of data and "getting into the economics of what it would cost and crunched a lot of numbers."

He also found the value of having good relationships within the engineering community.

"A lot of engineering is communication with other firms and if you get that good rapport you can get things done."

Getting into the nuts and bolts of wastewater systems gave civil engineering senior Michael Tavlin an opportunity to learn a new technology like the sewer modeling software known as SewerGEMS.

"I had to self-teach myself SewerGEMS and about pump stations and how they work and get designed. I had to design a couple of pump station options and that was kind of cool," says Tavlin.

Tyler Brenfleck, also a senior majoring in civil engineering, says as the team's Editor-in-Chief he created reports from information provided by other members. He also communicated with Manatee County Health Department officials and vendors as part of the project's infrastructure analysis. The outcome for him was, "My team and I were able to take our academic understanding of engineering, and learn how to apply it to practical applications in ways that we would not have understood further until working within the field."

Ultimately the students determined that connecting the Snead Island community to Palmetto's wastewater system is the best solution. This would be accomplished by using two existing lift stations in newer neighborhoods to deliver the excess sewage to the city's wastewater facility. Palmetto's in-house engineers and consultants will decide how to use the students' recommendations in developing the projects further.

USF teams have performed well in the FWEA design competition, which has two categories: Wastewater, which is the focus of this year's winning team, and Environmental. USF has placed first in FWEA's Wastewater competition each year since 2012 and first in the Environmental division in the years 2012, 2013 and 2016. The follow-on competition for Florida winners is the annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC) where USF has won in the Environmental category in 2012 and the Wastewater category in 2013 and 2014.

Professor James Mihelcic has also served as a design team advisor, including guiding both of last year's teams to FWEA victories with Cross. One of those teams, an all-women crew, placed second in the WEFTEC Wastewater design competition. According to Mihelcic, this kind of experiential learning provides opportunities for the students who participate and tangible benefits for the communities they engage with.

"The design competition showcases the high quality of our undergraduate engineering students who continue to develop innovative solutions for our nation's many water quality problems."
As to a possible reason for USF's good performance in the FWEA and WEFTEC student design competitions, Ergas says it comes down to preparation and how the team members present themselves when they are answering questions from competition judges.

"They're always able to clearly say why they did something or made a choice. When the judges ask them that, they are professional engineers."

USF's FWEA-winning team received a $4,250 travel allowance to go on to represent Florida at the national WEFTEC Student Design Competition to be held on October 1, 2017 in Chicago. Additionally, the team received a $1,000 Norm Casey Scholarship.

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