(Note: this article is republished with permission from the Winter 2015 "BioBriEf" newsletter, from the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering [BBE], University of Minnesota.  The original article title is "BBE Undergrad Students Win Regional Competition".  For questions, please contact Cindy McComas at mccom003@umn.edu)


The Environmental Challenge, co-hosted by the Air & Waste Management Association – Upper Midwest Section1, and the Central States Water Environment Association – Minnesota Section2, was held November 19, at the University of Minnesota Continuing Education and Conference Center. Participating together in the student-team challenge were Tahni Jungs, Rachel Kosse, Lizzy Selvik, and Aileen Zebrowski.

The purpose of the Environmental Challenge is to test students’ abilities to solve a complex environmental problem that is typical of those facing environmental professionals. Success in the challenge intrinsically requires multidisciplinary approaches. Each of the teams that participated in the Environmental Challenge received scores from over a dozen judges for the written, interactive table-top, and formal presentation phases of the competition; they were judged on their understanding of the problem, technical accuracy of their solution, quality of their presentation, and ability to express their thoughts and ideas in a clear and professional manner.

The true-to-life environmental dilemma given to undergraduate teams for this sixth annual competition was frank: Should the faux-company, Suds Industrial Laundry, continue using reusable towels, or switch to disposable?

To tackle the in-depth analysis of this simply stated question, the BBE student-team assigned themselves leadership roles. Jungst was the team’s Air Quality Engineer, Kosse was the Wastewater Engineer, Selvik the Energy Analyst, and Zebrowski the Materials Specialist. Members had specific strength areas to research, and would report back to the team for brainstorming and collaboration. “We considered having a Life Cycle Analyst, as the challenge coordinators suggested. But life cycle analyzing ended up being such a large part of our research; we didn’t want just one person to play that role, so we all did. It worked out very well,” shared Kosse.

The verdict presented to the panel of judges, by this winning team of four, concluded that Suds Industrial Laundry Company should remain using reusable towels for their services. “The margin between choosing reusable and disposable towels was close. People may think ‘Well, isn’t that obvious,’ but the truth is that it’s not. It turned out to be a lot more complex than we initially thought,” Selvik articulated. Zebrowski added, “We realized that some of our initial assumptions didn’t work, or we’d find out there was a better direction to steer our project.”

When asked how her education aided the team’s preparation, Kosse replied, “It seemed that every one of our classes was a small segment of the whole challenge. The course work goes really well with competing in a challenge like this.”

As aforementioned, a goal of the organizers is for the challenge to be a true-to-life challenge and experience. “One thing I can take away from this challenge is the aspect and importance of teamwork and its real-world applicability. I know in the future I’ll be working with a team of engineers in my upcoming career. This helped me prepare for that,” shared Jungst. This was the first year that each team member participated in the challenge. The top place title for the rookies came with a $1,300 prize. The team is interested in reprising their win next year, and will decide in September, based on their individual course schedules.