Michigan Tech Students and the Greater Good
The tradition of hands-on, experiential learning remains an essential element in the Michigan Tech educational experience and the University’s strategic plan. Here, students’ solutions for local problems may have much broader implications.
By Dennis Walikainen '92
Huron Creek runs from Portage Township through Houghton to the Keweenaw Waterway. It also runs from the copper mining days through the strip malls and Wal-Mart of today, and it’s not doing well.
“We wanted to preserve it before we lost it completely,” says Professor Alex Mayer.
Beyond saving the creek, “It is also about managing a watershed, wetlands, storm flows, erosion, etc.,” says Associate Professor Hugh Gorman. “Every watershed should have a management plan, however simple.”
Huron Creek’s troubles began when it was a water source for the Huron copper mine. Next, the city of Houghton grew around it, including a landfill and the M-26 commercial district. Today, challenges persist with heavy construction and possible septic problems. Local schoolteachers have even used it as a lesson in pollution.
Enter Mayer, professor of geological and environmental engineering, and Gorman, associate professor of environmental policy and history. They believe progress on saving Huron Creek has resulted from early involvement of the local community in addition to Tech faculty and staff.
“An initial public meeting on rerouting the stream due to Wal-Mart construction was packed,” Gorman says. “That showed us the interest was there, and it eventually encouraged the involvement of students, faculty, and community members.”
Adds Mayer, “We learned as much from the community as they learned from us.”
Since that first meeting, Gorman’s graduate students and Mayer’s senior design students have helped with many different facets of the project. In fact, environmental engineering master’s student Linda Kersten ’02 has written the overall watershed management plan, which doubles as her thesis. Mayer and Gorman agree that the success of the project has hinged on working across multiple Tech departments.
“You need some technical expertise, but it is more of an iterative process that involves many people,” says Mayer. That teamwork resulted in state funding for Kersten’s watershed management plan, successfully competing against many groups across Michigan.
Kersten has enjoyed the process “because it presented a chance to help out the local community,” she says. “Everyone says ‘Think global. Act local.’ Well, that’s what I got to do. This plan is designed to produce results, and who doesn’t like that?”
Community interest in the creek is partly due to where the creek ends: Houghton’s waterfront park. “You should have a nice-looking stream there,” Mayer says of the common sentiment of the citizens using the park. Currently, the stream “isn’t pristine,” in Mayer’s understated words.
Community members, working with the students, identified the following goals and priorities: creating a storm-water plan, moving away from septic systems, and improving vegetation and access.
Go to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and other sources of funding with a plan to implement these projects, Gorman says. After one more round of public input on the plan and submission to DEQ for approval, the researchers will pursue, with the city of Houghton, funding under DEQ and other state and federal programs.
The future of Huron Creek will continue to include Tech students and faculty working with community members.
“The students will continue monitoring the vegetation and water,” says Mayer, “and the water quality should improve. We can do this working with existing classes at Tech.”
Students and community groups have also embraced projects such as trash cleanup.
Saving Huron Creek combines Michigan Tech expertise and hard work with community concern and involvement: a new dimension of “town and gown.”
By Dennis Walikainen '92
The Village of Lake Linden had problems: It was using ancient software for its water- and sewer-billing, and it had an accounting system with flaws revealed when an employee was charged with embezzlement.
Send in the students.
Michigan Tech’s IT Oxygen Enterprise team created a new accounting system and developed a mechanism for checks and balances. And they did it with little cost to the village. (Enterprise teams are student-run businesses supported by clients whose problems they solve.)
The new system features an audit trail and streamlines the process of updating customer accounts. Previously, staff had to input 550 entries one at a time every month. Now, they can be batched, and what once ate up three days takes about an hour. The process should go even faster with a bar-code system allowing clerks to scan the bills with the payments.
So far, so good on the first run, according to the project’s development leader, Randy Enk, a 2008 computer engineering graduate. “They seem happy with it. They like the incredible time savings.”
Enk likes what he’s discovered. “I learned about the life cycle of a project, from start to finish, and the importance of thoroughly looking at all the special cases before you design it. We did a lot of ‘I wish I’d thought of that before.’”
Enk started his career with Sentry Insurance in Wisconsin, and the experience with this project has piqued his interest in management as well as the nuts and bolts of writing code.
Overseeing the project are Bob Maatta ’68 and Jim Frendewey ’73 of the School of Business and Economics. They are working closely with Village of Lake Linden Councilman Ed Fisher and Village Clerk Bob Poirier. “This really complements what they are studying in the classroom,” says Maatta. “The students learned how to develop and apply a methodology and how to handle changing requirements.”
The Lake Linden folks are pleased. “The students have learned something about local government,” says Fisher, “and our council and office staff have learned something about bright students and modern technologies. And these types of packages are very expensive and usually require maintenance contracts.”
“It’s a great combination of students, too,” adds Frendewey. Computer science, computer engineering, business, and computer network and system administration majors are part of the thirty-odd-member team, which enjoys one big advantage over other enterprise groups.
“They get paid,” Maatta says.
“We wanted to run it as an actual business, so we pay the students, who typically work on projects ten hours per week.” Thanks to a five-year, $1.2-million grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, the enterprise can run as a company and take on more business. The team has current projects for the Boy Scouts of America and the Nature Conservancy.
Also, a grant from IBM has allowed the team to use business modeling to analyze some of Tech’s own administrative processes. John Soyring ’76, vice president of solutions and software for IBM, was instrumental in the grant.
“It’s many Tech offices working together,” Frendewey says. “The students had to present their findings and did a great job.”
Maatta became advisor of the IT Oxygen Enterprise after he retired from IBM and joined the SBE faculty.
“It’s always great when you see students step up into leadership positions,” Maatta says. “You can see their confidence grow over time, and you never know who is going to be a leader.”
The faculty and students don’t want the enterprise to get too big, according to Maatta, but “we would love to see a student spin off his or her own business from this and become an entrepreneur.”
By Marcia Goodrich
Faced with more state-mandated spending than it had in its bank account, Stanton Township never expected that a team of Michigan Tech students would ride into town and save the day. But they did anyway.
It seemed like a heck of a deal. For one dollar, the township got a pair of historic dams, a reservoir, and a stretch of one of the Keweenaw’s great steelhead streams.
For a township looking to boost recreation, it was hard to turn down such an opportunity. A few years later, however, the Stanton Township Board felt that their gift horse was probably Trojan.
“I don’t think the board knew what the potential liability was,” says former Township Supervisor Marvin Heinonen.
Houghton County’s Salmon Trout River is slowed in its rush toward Lake Superior first by an 1894 timber crib dam and then by a much larger 1901 steel dam. In 2001, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, concerned that the dams might fail and flood the coastal village of Redridge, ordered the township to finance an engineering study. Based on its findings, the township removed the top section of the timber crib dam in 2004 to drop the water to a safer level. The total price tag: about $100,000.
“Our budget for the whole year is $200,000,” Heinonen notes.
More bad news awaited Stanton Township’s 1,268 residents. In 2005, the DEQ called for more action, including the removal of both dams, which had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This time, cost estimates ranged up to a million dollars. Heinonen was losing sleep.
Then Stan Vitton ’76/’79, an associate professor of geotechnical engineering, read an article in the Daily Mining Gazette, and the township’s luck began to change. “I called Ken Vrana and asked if we could take on the Redridge dams as a Senior Design project,” Vitton recalls.
Vrana leads an ad hoc group studying the issues percolating around the Redridge dams. With the blessing of the township, he invited Vitton’s students to conduct their own engineering analysis.
What they found couldn’t have been more at odds with the earlier study. “The wood dam was completely different from what the drawings said,” says civil engineering graduate Cindel Zimmerman ’08. It was, in fact, a rock-fill and wood dam, with a huge heap of stones holding back the river just behind the timber face. “This dam,” Vitton predicts, “shouldn’t have any problems.”
The students ran a stability analysis of the steel dam as well. Though they discovered some corrosion and deterioration of the steel and concrete, they found it to be 40 percent stronger than necessary to withstand the worst-case scenario, a hundred-year flood.
“We’re just delighted,” says Heinonen. “We’ve received over $100,000 worth of work on this project from Tech. They’ve done everything from soup to nuts.”
The Senior Design project lays the foundation for the dams’ recertification in 2009. Plus, Vitton’s team built safety barriers at either end of a trestle crossing the top of the steel dam, which soars eighty feet above the water.
Another senior working on the project, Scott Nowack, has a soft spot for the Salmon Trout, having fished its steelhead run.
“I love going out there,” he says. “It was great to work on something that had a direct bearing on the UP. ”
Zimmerman concurs. “I loved it,” she says. “We had to figure what was out there before we did any design work. We got to meet the community members, hear their stories, hear what happened to the dam. Then we made them so happy. It was very rewarding.”
“The university and the students engaged hand in hand with the township, doing thorough engineering research to determine what risk there might be, and then addressing those risks,” Vrana says. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
The students’ work also bought the township the time it needed to survey its residents and gain a sense of the considerable value of the Redridge dam area to the community. It also allowed fisheries experts to point out that the steel dam had probably protected the Salmon Trout from lamprey eels, which infested Lake Superior decades ago and parasitize native fish.
Heinonen reports that he’s sleeping better at night. “We’re extremely elated out here in Stanton,” he says. “And I’ve told other townships, if you get a chance to use those smart students over there at Tech, feel free to ask.”