It was Wednesday afternoon, May 5, and Calvin’s senior engineering majors were cleaning the two wings of the engineering building, the site of Senior Projects Night—the annual showcase of the students’ engineering ingenuity held this year on Saturday, May 8, 2010.

It was Wednesday afternoon, May 5, and Calvin’s senior engineering majors were cleaning the two wings of the engineering building, the site of Senior Projects Night—the annual showcase of the students’ engineering ingenuity held this year on Saturday, May 8, 2010.

It was Wednesday afternoon, May 5, and Calvin’s senior engineering majors were cleaning the two wings of the engineering building, the site of Senior Projects Night—the annual showcase of the students’ engineering ingenuity held this year on Saturday, May 8, 2010.

As his colleagues cleared tables of debris and pushed brooms, senior civil and environmental engineer and Zionsville, Ind., native Andrew Rescorla was out on the loading dock explaining why his team had converted a 40-foot steel shipping container into a home. “I was down in South Africa a couple of years ago and saw these post-apartheid townships. There’s just a huge need for sustainable housing, and there will continue to be a need,” he said.

A temporary solution

The shipping container makes a good temporary housing solution for the world’s urban poor Rescorla said, and his team, named “Ship to Shanty,” has equipped their model with some modern-day amenities: there’s a sink, a toilet, a living area, a ventilation system, a sewage system and a basic water treatment system. The unit even has a garden on the roof.

Mechanical engineer Alex Boelkins, from Ada, Mich., is particularly enthusiastic about the water treatment unit, which converts water collected in a barrel on the roof into drinking water: “It was symbolic that our home could take dirty water and make it clean and safe,” he said.

There were some unforeseen challenges to the project, said Grand Rapids native Katrina Denny, another civil and environmental concentrator—such as cutting out spaces for windows. “In the prototype construction, we were definitely thinking things would go easier than they did,” she said, laughing.

Nevertheless, the Ship to Shanty crew is pleased with their prototype, a completed version of which would cost $5,000. “Using a shipping container for (permanent) housing doesn’t make sense,” said Rescorla, “but using it for short-term, temporary housing does make sense.”

Real-world engineering experience

The shanty project not only makes sense, it presents the students with a real-world engineering challenge—which is the whole point of senior design projects, said Calvin engineering professor Aubrey Sykes. “It causes students to put their skills and education together on an unstructured problem, unlike the homework they’ve experienced,” he said.

This year's projects include: a microbial fuel cell; a drinking water system for Cuchiverachi, Mexico; a heating-and-cooling system for a home in East Grand Rapids; an amaranth popper; a wastewater treatment system for a village in Ecuador; a master plan for the Eden School of Agriculture in Cambodia; a bridge across Calvin’s Whiskey Creek; a kayak course for the Grand River; a GPS unit that works in tunnels and other enclosed spaces; an automated pool cleaning system; a remote-controlled, adjustable putting green; a geothermal snowmelt system for Calvin’s Burton Street Entrance; a more-efficient internal combustion engine; an amphibious vehicle; a kit that converts a standard bicycle into a snowmobile and a recreational lock system for Grand Rapids’ Millennium Park.

As the seniors put the final tweaks on their efforts, they’re also putting in the long hours, Sykes said. “Now they’re learning the importance of planning,” he observed.

A run-through

“Okay, where’s the fresh amaranth?” asked mechanical concentrator and Wooster, Ohio, native Amanda Hollinger, as team Amaranth Popper got ready to demonstrate the machine of the same name. This year’s amaranth popper improves on an electrical model created by senior designers several years ago; it is powered by gas, which isn’t as scarce as electricity in the global south.

Amaranth is a nutritious plant, containing large amounts of protein and immune-boosting lysine. “We’re hoping that by finding a better technology that we can encourage people in rural areas to grow it as a cash crop,” said chemical concentrator Tim Thielke, who grew up in the Philippines.

On Wednesday afternoon, the better technology was giving the team a little trouble, and one team member, electrical concentrator and Commerce Township, Mich., native Mike Petlicke, was taking the blame: “I think I need to get over the idea that duct tape solves everything,” he said.

A tour

Join team Ship to Shanty as they show off the swell digs they made out of a shipping container.

A demonstration

Join team Amaranth Popper as they demonstrate their gas-powered unit.

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