Mentoring tomorrow's engineers in sustainability practices

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See how students and sponsors benefit when four energetic and creative engineering students evolved their senior year project into an experience that grew their knowledge about sustainability practices.

March 28, 20237 mins
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Education and training programs are stretched to the limit to meet enterprise demands for sustainability strategists, engineers, and designers. To close the gap, technical leaders can nurture productive relationships through higher-education programs that benefit everyone involved. Mentoring engineering students through internships, senior projects, and other similar programs helps these students grow their sustainability skills while offering a multitude of benefits for the enterprise and our planet.

A technical leader who champions these experiences is Iron Mountain’s Fellow, Will Allen–a deeply humble, infinitely curious, and prolific systems engineer and inventor with over 90 patents to date. A few months ago, Will posed three questions that launched a sustainability project:

  • What happens when a new wave of half a billion plastic tapes used for commercial storage hits Earth’s landfills over the next several years?
  • What if engineering students could solve the problem so we never have to find out?
  • What might everyone gain from that?

This is the story of lessons taught and learned between Will as mentor and four mechanical engineering students from Oregon State University (OSU).

Retroactively solving an age-old problem

Tapes are tangible, so working with them is a great place for students to start learning about circular economy practices. The students can relate to end-of-life tapes. They remember old favorite movies on consumer formats such as VHS and Beta lying around their homes. For parents back then, the idea of giving up those tapes was unimaginable because they evoked too many happy memories of watching their kids watching the movies in wonder. But time passed; DVDs and streaming convenience won out; and tapes hit landfills because the opportunities for recycling are limited. Why? The tape itself may be toxic when broken down; plastic shells may be held together with metal screws that cannot be recycled, and so on.

While it’s almost impossible to quantify the missed opportunity to recycle those long-forgotten, tossed-out, or lost consumer tapes, we know that over 350 million archival storage cartridges alone have shipped since 2000. Offering up to a 30-year lifespan under “ideal conditions," the earliest generation is now 23 years old. The matter is relatable and urgent.

What if you could seed a movement?

In Will’s words: “I’ve mentored engineering students in various programs over the decades because they can benefit from practical experience. Engineering students tend to have solo theoretical projects, while in real life, engineers typically work in teams to gather more perspectives quickly. So we’re helping these students model successful teamwork and inclusion within a circular economy framework. Many students just coming out of programs today have little practical exposure to sustainability design principles, so they lack a depth of understanding about the problems of supporting a circular economy in which nothing is wasted.”

For the students, making progress on separating the cartridge shells from the non-recyclable parts represented a bounded problem within a highly constrained budget and timeframe. “These students had to show a lot of initiative under guidance to do a research and development project. I asked them to invent an efficient machine and process to separate the plastic clamshell housing used on a common storage cartridge so that the plastic elements could be recycled,” Will recalls.

Senior Mechanical Engineering students John Berglin, Myles Willis, Hudson Naze, and Aaron Kemper from Oregon State University met weekly with Iron Mountain project mentor Will Allen.

Senior Mechanical Engineering students John Berglin, Myles Willis, Hudson Naze, and Aaron Kemper from Oregon State University met weekly with Iron Mountain project mentor Will Allen.

How the project worked

Dr. Sarah Oman, Senior Capstone Instructor for Oregon State’s School of Manufacturing, Industrial, and Mechanical Engineering, helped Will frame the project and provided a rigorous schedule of deliverables so the students could stay on track to reach a successful outcome. The requirements included these deliverables:

  • A separating machine operable in a basic industrial environment, such as a loading dock, and not requiring hazardous materials/chemicals
  • Written operating and maintenance instructions
  • Estimates of startup and per-cartridge (or per kg) operating costs, including cycle time and operator time
  • Analysis of efficiency of separation (% recyclable material successfully separated).

The students worked through a series of detailed specifications, drawings, and models on their way to producing a prototype that would punch all four screws through the plastic clam shell at once. This enabled them to separate the two sides from other non-recyclable materials in the cartridge.

Will kept it simple: “We didn’t have to automate or solve the problem at scale.That can come in a later project.”

Advice from will based on his experiences

For anyone involved in or wanting to get started with sustainable engineering projects, Will shares this advice:

  • Collaborate with external program administrators before making commitments. Build a relationship, set expectations, and ask for recommendations on the best types of projects to meet student needs and your organization’s objectives.
  • Address questions of intellectual property ownership and the need for non-disclosure agreements up front.
  • Be specific about the requirements for success.
  • Plan to meet at least weekly with the students to help them with any roadblocks they encounter.
  • Act as a cheerleader, mentor, and coach, not as a manager.

Reaping the benefits

These types of initiatives yield benefits for both the students and the enterprise. For example:

  • The students apply principles they learned in class, while developing a deeper understanding of the problems inherent in sustainable design. Because of this project, they are better prepared to succeed in jobs requiring a heightened sense of how to contribute to a circular economy.
  • Enterprises benefit from the energy, creativity, and fresh perspectives of the students and their school sponsor. The organization strengthens university relations to open possibilities for more projects while stimulating the talent pipeline for the future.

According to Dr. Oman, “The work these students have done with Will and Iron Mountain will translate to numerous critical skills for their future careers in engineering industry. The success of the project can be largely contributed to the students’ drive and the enthusiastic mentorship of Will. I truly believe their experience working on this project has set them up for amazing engineering careers.”

Another winner is our planet, as more people work towards a sustainable future.

And if you ask Will, he’ll also say, “And we had a lot of fun!”

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