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Description of Three Algae-Related Interdisciplinary Senior Design Projects in Mechanical Engineering and Their Impact on Students

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Curricular Developments in Energy Education II

Tagged Division

Energy Conversion and Conservation

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.423.1 - 22.423.17



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Paper Authors


Teodora Rutar Seattle University

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Teodora Rutar Shuman is a Paccar Associate Professor at Seattle University, Department of Mechanical Engineering. She received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Belgrade University, Yugoslavia, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington. She pursues research in electro-mechanical systems for sustainable processing of microalgae. Email:

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Gregory Mason Seattle University

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Description of Three Algae-Related Interdisciplinary Senior Design Projects in Mechanical Engineering and Their Impact on StudentsAbstractAlgae related research is an exciting field. Annual Algae Biomass Summit, established only fouryears ago, now draws more than 700 participants, including those from industry, academia,research institutions, and entrepreneurs. Algae industry, although still in its infancy, has a strongpotential to develop sustainable fuels, foods, or chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, andreplace some or all products made from crude oil. Algae related research however is problematicfor undergraduate mechanical engineering students because it contains a significantinterdisciplinary component, including biology and chemistry laboratory techniques. In 2006, themechanical engineering department at our university undertook a project to design aphotobioreactor to grow oleaginous algae for a local startup company. This project wasestablished as a year-long capstone design project. The project was manned by four mechanicalengineering students and supervised by an industry liaison and a faculty advisor from bothmechanical engineering and biology. Although faculty were initially concerned about theinterdisciplinary component of the project and mechanical engineering student’s interest in such,the students were enthusiastic and were able to successfully complete the project. The successesof that project lead to three more algae related year-long capstone design projects. In 2009 ateam of students designed and tested a mechanical algal oil extractor. That team collaboratedwith biology and chemistry faculty and students. In 2010, a team designed and tested an electro-coagulation device to harvest algae. That project involved significant interaction with theelectrical engineering department’s staff and resulted in a provisional patent with student’snames on it. In 2010, our fourth algae related capstone design project commenced.This paper provides a description of the three completed projects including requirements,biology laboratory work, technical and scientific research, design processes, final products andtesting, and measurements and calculations used to develop an understanding of energyconversion efficiencies and life-cycle energy use of a device. Interactions between faculty andstudents from the different departments will also be explained. Special emphasis will be placedon understanding how to make interdisciplinary projects successful.The paper also explores the student motivation for undertaking and remaining motivated on aninterdisciplinary project. Initial results show that motivation remained high because projectremained challenging throughout. However, the interdisciplinary subject matter, laboratorytechniques, interactions between students and professors of different disciplines, and interactionsbetween students and sponsors all played a role in the project success.Finally, the paper explores how participation on these interdisciplinary projects influencedstudents in their subsequent career choices. The involved students are now either engineeringprofessionals in wide range of industries and geographical locations or graduate students.

Rutar, T., & Mason, G. (2011, June), Description of Three Algae-Related Interdisciplinary Senior Design Projects in Mechanical Engineering and Their Impact on Students Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17704

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