NMSU’s 30th annual WERC Environmental Design Contest goes online

DATE: 06/08/2020
WRITER: Vladimir Avina, 575-646-7234, vlad23@nmsu.edu
CONTACT: Ginger Scarbrough, gscarbro@nmsu.edu

Amid a global pandemic, engineering students across the country competed virtually in the first-ever online WERC Environmental Design Contest, hosted by the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University.

From left: (top row) Ginger Scarbrough, Guanyu Ma, (bottom row) Taylor Stutely, Lei Mu and Lin Chen met over Zoom to discuss their experience with the 30th annual WERC Environmental Design Contest. New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering hosted the event online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

Nearly 100 students from nine colleges and universities across the country competed in this year’s design contest. More than $24,000 in cash awards was distributed among 11 winning teams.

Winning teams include Louisiana State University, California Polytechnic State University, University of North Texas, Ohio University, Santa Fe Community College and NMSU.

The design contest challenges teams to build working models of their engineering solutions for the task they choose. The teams ordinarily bring their model to Las Cruces where they present to a panel of judges. This year, the College of Engineering was challenged with transitioning the design contest to an online format.

“In early March, we started receiving email from teams telling us that they were no longer allowed to work in their laboratories, or even to come within six feet of each other,” said Ginger Scarbrough, WERC Program Manager. “In the next few days, it became clear that a physical contest in Las Cruces would not be possible.”

After days of planning and brainstorming, the College of Engineering moved forward with the one-time, virtual competition.

“Our plan was met with resounding support from the teams, the judges and our sponsors,” Scarbrough said. “Of the 21 teams originally registered for the contest, 17 completed the competition and 30 practicing or retired engineers served as judges. All of the task sponsors continued to fully support the virtual contest.”

Raymond Poche, team leader and student at LSU, said the transition to an online format brought him valuable skills.

New Mexico State University Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Yanyan Zhang and engineering student Lakshani Abeykoon worked on their project for the WERC Environmental Design Contest before NMSU faculty, staff and students were sent home because of COIVD-19 safety measures. NMSU’s College of Engineering hosted the 2020 event online. (Courtesy photo)

“One of the most valuable lessons learned was adaptability to unique circumstances,” Poche said. “The transition of the competition to a virtual format was completely new to everyone involved and challenged our team to adapt quickly, which is a valuable skill in all engineering careers.”

NMSU placed second in tasks 5 and 6.

Pei Xu, civil and environmental engineering professor, was the faculty adviser for the team competing in task 5, Produced Water: Cleanup and Rare Earth Element Recovery. Xu’s background in produced water treatment proved invaluable for Taylor Stutely, team leader and Ph.D. candidate at NMSU.

“The WERC Design Contest encouraged me to get involved with students and faculty members from departments I may never have engaged with before,” Stutely said. “Above all, the opportunity taught me an invaluable lesson on how to both act as a productive teammate and a reliable leader.”

The NMSU team placing second in the open challenge task 6 was advised by Lambis Papelis, civil engineering professor. For this task, teams identify their own engineering challenge and develop a solution. The challenge their team tackled was called Microbial Enhancement of Selenium Removal Using Chemically Modified Zeolites.

“The design contest has become a tradition where NMSU Engineering takes the lead in bringing together student teams from across the U.S.,” College of Engineering Dean Lakshmi N. Reddi said. “I am pleased that we are able to continue this tradition this year in spite of the obvious challenges involved in bringing teams together.”


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