Student Group Spotlight: Engineers for a Sustainable World


Students in Engineers for a Sustainable World work on a project together. by Melissa Shin

Americans buy more bottled water than any other nation in the world. The empty bottles that are left behind take about 450 years to biodegrade and emit toxic fumes when incinerated. How can the world tackle the problem that enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the Earth four times? Engineers for a Sustainable World at NU (ESW) take on the challenge, gathering students to design and execute practical solutions to the most pressing issues threatening the sustainability of the planet.

Ben Goodman, the co-president of ESW at NU and a McCormick junior, eagerly explains the various projects that are in action and what everyone can soon expect to see from the innovative club.

Photo courtesy of Ben Goodman

What is the purpose of the organization?

ESW started 10 years ago to give students who were passionate about sustainability hands-on ways of applying that to projects. The intent is to have these projects that allow you to apply your passion and knowledge to things that can tangibly improve the world.

How did you get involved in ESW?

Engineering is actually my second career. I was really lucky and got work as a ballet dancer out of high school. Part of what motivated me to change careers was my wanting to be involved in sustainability. When I saw the group ESW at the activities fair, I just raised my hand and said, “That’s me!”

What projects this quarter are you excited about?

Pura Playa [was] started in order to tackle the problem of oceanic plastic pollution. They have designed a new recycling station, which just arrived at Norris this week. It’s right by the C-store. It’s a dynamic visual display that displays a lot of the waste that you might accumulate buying stuff in Norris, and it instructs you on which type of waste goes into which bin. One of the biggest problems with improving recycling is that a lot of people think things are recyclable that aren’t.

Water Pressures originally [was] started to focus on the problem of big puddles of water forming around campus after storms and poor storm water drainage management. There are ways that we can design retention areas called bioswales that not only divert water the way they’re supposed to but also actually purify the water. It’s essentially a really fancy ditch, where you cleverly pick the plants to purify the water that is detained. There is a bioswale in the new SPAC garage expansion—the team helped to see that through.

What projects in the past were the most successful?

There are some awesome projects in the past that are really inspiring to know that students did. Students planned, fundraised and executed the solar panel installation on the roof of Ford. We do track the generation from that and it is pretty significant what we contribute to Northwestern’s grid in the summer.

Other than that, we have had a team of students build an entire tiny house. As part of the tiny house movement, the thinking was about how our day-to-day living doesn’t need to make as big of an impact as it would if you had a huge house that you needed to heat. We actually had it displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry for a while.

What can we look forward to from ESW?

This is the fifth year we’re putting on the Summit on Sustainability, which is coming up in April. And, this year we’re focusing on ‘Your plate, Your planet,’ sustainability and food.

We’ve also always had renewable energy focused projects. One of the biggest accomplishments of that is the solar panel array on the roof of Ford. The offshoot of that is the smart tree project. We had some leftover solar panels, and it’s been this great challenge like ‘what do you do with a bunch of leftover solar panels?’ We’ve been working hard to design an outdoor solar-powered study station, where you can be powering your computer or phone while you’re studying outside. That design is getting pretty close to be contracted and built. They’re hoping to build it on the south lawn of Norris.

What are some tips you would suggest in taking steps towards a more sustainable world?

Definitely for me, I think that always trying to carry a reuseable bag with you is important. A lot of people outside of engineering don’t realize that plastic bags are made from petroleum. That’s something I’m constantly telling grocery store clerks. Those flimsy plastic bags are really easily blown out of waste bins and degrade really easily in the ocean and are a big part of the oceanic pollution problem.

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