Projects range from geothermal heating and cooling, to wind and solar power, to an environmentally-friendly parking structure

Despite the fact that the temperature hasn’t recently risen above 25 degrees Fahrenheit, global warming was on the minds of a dozen Indiana University Northwest students. For the past few months, these students have been researching alternative energy resources they believe would be important investments for the university to consider in response to human-based global environmental changes.

The interdisciplinary course, Global Environmental Change (G185), is team-taught by Associate Professor of Geosciences Erin Argyilan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology Peter Avis, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Chemistry Julie Peller, Ph.D.

The course was introduced in 2008 in response to increased student interest in the topic of global climate change. A large focus on this year’s class was on fossil fuels due to this summer’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and closer to home, the spill from a Griffith-based pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

“In this course, we strive to teach the science that will enable students to act as informed and responsible global citizens,” Avis said. “Toward this aim, the students in our class formed groups and worked to conduct research on possible renewable energies that would help to decrease the university’s carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels.”

In groups ranging in size, students tackled projects focused on solar and wind power, geothermal heating and cooling, algae-based biofuels, and an environmentally-friendly parking structure complete with a modular garden, LED lights, and a rainwater catchment system.

Kyle Dean, a secondary education major, said the course opened his eyes not only on an educational level, as a topic he’d consider teaching in his future classroom, but also on a personal level.

“After learning about all the types of alternative energy resources, it makes me think about having a future home with a renewable energy system,” Dean added. “Especially since energy costs are going to continue to increase.”

Dean partnered with Ashley Scheerer and Gina Caschetta to work on a project the team entitled, ‘Shining a New Light for I.U.N.’ Their project focused on the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Library Conference Center.

The group’s research found that the sun is capable of producing more energy than the earth could ever use in a lifetime, and the group noted this type of energy is already used daily on the IU Northwest campus on a small scale; from calculators, to wristwatches and even traffic signs.

Recommendations from the students indicated the most cost-effective system would be to purchase a pallet of 26 solar panels, despite the fact that only 14 could fit on the Library’s roof.

The group proposed that the remaining 12 panels could be installed on roofs around campus, such as on Hawthorn Hall or Savannah Center.

“From the companies we researched, it was cheaper to buy a pallet consisting of 26 panels, than to buy each panel individually,” Caschetta said. “Solar energy is becoming more reasonable to buy. The individual system we researched was estimated at less than $12,000; ten years ago, that system would have been at least triple the price.”

Under ideal conditions, if all 14 panels had a maximum output of 170 watts per eight hours a day, the group estimated the campus would generate 3,750 kilowatts per year, resulting in an annual savings of $337.50. This estimate is based on an average of 197 days of sunlight; the amount typical for Northwest Indiana as indicated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With an investment of less than $12,000, the group calculated that the 14-solar panel project located on the Library would pay for itself within 34 years.

Despite the lengthy profit margin, the students indicated the pros definitely outweighed the cons by emphasizing that solar power releases no noise or strobe effects, is space efficient, and would result in substantial environmental benefits such as saving more than 2,800 gallons of water per year and significant decreases in air pollutants such as carbon dioxide.

“According to the university’s mission and vision, this campus is committed to the health and welfare of all the communities around it, and what better way to show that (commitment) than to invest in renewable resources, such as solar?” Dean said.

“Solar energy is constantly evolving and technology in this field is increasing, so who knows, in 20 years what will be available,” Dean added.

Another forward looking project that was discussed during the student presentations was the ‘green’ parking structure, cleverly deemed the ‘green monster’ by Dr. Avis.

The focus of the presentation was on the development of a 1,000-car parking structure with a modular garden on the top level to help reduce carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels.

The group’s research indicated, that from just the university’s student population, nearly 11,500 pounds of carbon monoxide, and an estimated 6.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide are released each year.

The presenting students, Megan Klimek, Nathaniel Thompson, Tania Higareda and Megan Morris, all agreed building a ‘green’ structure would lessen the commuter campus’s carbon footprint, and help deem IU Northwest a leading ‘green’ school within the region and the greater IU network.

“Having a ‘green’ space on top of the parking garage could help to offset some of the carbon emissions,” Thompson said. “While it (the garden) wouldn’t completely offset all of the emissions, it would definitely help the campus and greater community.”

Implementing LED lights, a rainwater runoff collection, as well as a host of other alternative energy sources like solar or wind power would also help to further offset the emissions produced by IU Northwest.

The groups also listed other valuable resources a ‘green’ parking structure could add, including its aesthetic appeal, the ability for it to be used as a community garden for the residents of Gary, or a teaching tool for both IU Northwest professors and local teachers.

“As a regional campus, IU Northwest has made it a priority to maintain and better our local community through education and service,” Avis said. “We believe that we must also set an example by committing to environmentally sustainable practices. IU Northwest has a unique opportunity, and an important responsibility to address and reduce the overall carbon footprint generated by a commuter campus.

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