Dec. 14, 2015Vol. 46, Issue 3

Powering the future

Business, engineering students partner on national wind energy competition

Business entrepreneurship major Jonathan Torres, left, and mechanical engineering major Henry Sanchez consider options for a wind-powered prototype. 

This academic year, deep in the recesses of the Langdon Engineering Center in what is known to frequenters as the wind lab, a unique collaboration is flourishing between students from two seemingly far-flung fields.

Students in Engineering Capstone Design and in Social Entrepreneurship classes, taught by professors David Alexander and Colleen Robb, respectively, have pooled their diverse skill sets to create a real-world wind energy application. The team plans to submit its prototype and marketing plan to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2016 Collegiate Wind Competition in New Orleans in May.  

CSU, Chico’s team is one of just 12 selected to participate in the competition, now in its third year, and received a $20,000 DOE grant to support students with the cost of materials and travel to the competition. The College of Business is contributing funds as well.

During a team meeting in early November, the students worked to identify potential clients, which would in turn inform the design of the turbine prototype. Potential applications included powering cooling systems for commercial wineries, lights and buildings at airports, and charging stations for electric cars. The business students heard from their engineering counterparts about certain design limitations, such as blade size and number of gears, which would eliminate some applications from consideration.

This push-and-pull between the two fields is not unusual in the real world, said Alexander, who worked in industry before joining the faculty at CSU, Chico. In fact, the ability to work with others from different departments is critical to landing—and keeping—a job.

“So often in companies the engineers are told to go talk to the business people and figure out what to build,” he said. “Those groups really have to work together, so it’s great to have students doing that now and getting that experience together.”

The collaboration is not without its challenges. The application concept has undergone multiple iterations, as students have incorporated feedback from their pitches to business owners and steered the project in new directions. After a semester of market research, the group recently decided to design and market a wind turbine for charging the batteries of electric vehicles in emergency situations. 

Clockwise from left, mechanical engineering majors Yahya Al, Angelina Teel Jonson, and Maqboul Yuanyuan Ju collaborate on a prototype of a wind-driven application.

Clockwise from left, mechanical engineering majors Yahya Al, Angelina Teel Jonson, and Maqboul Yuanyuan Ju collaborate on a prototype of a wind-driven application.

They will spend next semester developing the business plan fully, including conducting extensive market analysis and, of course, developing and testing the prototype for competition. The turbine will be a final project for the two-semester capstone design course for engineering majors and was a final project for the social entrepreneurship class. 

“This is the first time some of them have had to solve an open-ended problem,” Alexander said. “It’s been interesting to watch them work through it.”

“They’re learning to communicate with each other,” Robb added. “The two groups think really differently.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the partnership is the exposure students are gaining to fields outside their designated areas. Earlier this semester, the entrepreneurial students presented to their engineering peers on the makings of a business plan and how to conduct market analysis. Engineering students, in turn, explained what a wind turbine is, where wind comes from, and how a turbine works.

Senior business major Karola Grant, a Butte County local, is serving as the team’s business lead. Grant said the entire group is learning “flexibility, problem-solving, and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Senior Henry Sanchez, a double major in mechanical engineering and mechatronic engineering and the engineering lead, said key learning areas for the team were in identifying competitors and price points and developing a business and marketing plan. And most of all: “Organization.”

More can be learned about the Collegiate Wind Competition at http://energy.gov/eere/collegiatewindcompetition, or by contacting Alexander at dgalexander@csuchico.edu or Robb at ccrobb@csuchico.edu.

Sarah Langford is public affairs coordinator for the Department of Public Affairs and Publications and editor of Inside Chico State. She can be reached at sglangford@csuchico.edu

Art professor J. Pouwels exhibited at 1078 Gallery in Chico, “Interference,” in November.

Achievements

Jerome Pouwels exhibited at 1078 Gallery in Chico in November.  Read More

“Holidays Are Here Again”

Holidays are here again

Student vocalists composed and recorded an original holiday song. Watch the recording.