With a Little Software Magic, Students Create Pollution Solutions

by |April 20, 2017
Students in the “Challenges of Sustainable Development” course presented their solutions for the problem of air pollution and haze in Singapore at Bard College’s Third Annual Asia and the Environment Research Conference. From left: instructor Jason Wong, Annie Block, Chelsea Jean-Michel, Marchelle Lundquist, Elsie Platzer, Francesca Merrick and Bennett Smith.

Students in the “Challenges of Sustainable Development” course presented their solutions for the problem of air pollution and haze in Singapore at Bard College’s Third Annual Asia and the Environment Research Conference. From left: instructor Jason Wong, Annie Block, Chelsea Jean-Michel, Marchelle Lundquist, Francesca Merrick, Elsie Platzer and Bennett Smith.

By Jason Wong

Undergraduate sustainability students explored innovative software and 3D printing to create a set of possible solutions to help Singapore cope with a big problem: haze and air pollution drifting over the city state from burning forests in neighboring Indonesia.

Six of the students in the sustainable development undergraduate program, Annie Block, Chelsea Jean-Michel, Marchelle Lundquist, Francesca Merrick, Elsie Platzer and Bennett Smith, traveled to the Hudson Valley last week to present at Bard College’s Third Annual Asia and the Environment Research Conference, organized by Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy.

The students are all enrolled in “Challenges of Sustainable Development,” the core social science course in the program, this semester. They were the only freshmen and sophomore students accepted to the conference, which otherwise included junior, senior and graduate student presenters. The students presented their first project from the course, where they had the opportunity to come up with solutions for the transboundary air pollution and haze problem in Singapore, which has been attributed to slash and burn techniques in the neighboring regions, in particular, in Indonesia.

Smith’s project focused on a potential citizen enforcement solution: He 3D-printed at Columbia’s Makerspace a drone prototype with the hope to mount a camera to enable Indonesian farmers to collect evidence of violations.

Block and Jean-Michel envisioned a large-scale air filter using electrodes to capture the particulate matter emitted. In the photo, they are holding a demonstration model.

Merrick and Platzer developed a science curriculum for 5th- through 8th-graders to give students hands-on experience with collecting basic air pollution data using Arduino Uno, an open source electronic hardware and software platform, complete with worksheets and teacher’s manual. They attended workshops at Columbia’s Science and Engineering Library and checked out several Arduinos to test and design their curriculum.

Lundquist used TinkerCad, an online 3D design and printing tool, to visualize a scalable, multi-use park concept that combines mitigation, adaptation and education into one.

Students and professors in attendance commended their presentations; many were surprised to learn that this was only a component of our course. The amount of effort and dedication that went into these projects resembled year-long or semester-long upper level work.

This was the students’ first academic conference as undergraduates. They heard keynote speeches by Professor Julia Adeney Thomas of Notre Dame and Professor Darrin Magee of Hobart & William Smith on lessons learned from Japan and China’s relationship with the environment. They also benefited from insightful feedback from other students and faculty at the conference.

The initial inspiration for the project came from MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment. Additional help came from Columbia’s Makerspace and the Science and Engineering Library, guest lecturer Mark Staples, and Jennifer Brown, who taught the class about Arduino.

Jason Wong co-teaches “Challenges of Sustainable Development,” the core social science course in the Sustainable Development program at Columbia University. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Columbia and is affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Urban Development of the Earth Institute and the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at MIT.

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