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Infrastructure Technology Institute

Civil Engineering Seniors are Challenged by
Real World Projects

Civil Engineering Capstone Design class students on a field trip along the Chicago
waterway system.

The North Shore Channel (NSC) skirts just west of Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, but few students are aware of its existence. Constructed as part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) drainage system, the original purpose of this manmade channel was to draw water from Lake Michigan into the Chicago River to help flush effluent downstream. The NSC now sits largely unused, since modern regulations allow very little Lake Michigan water to used in this way. As a result, the water in the channel does not flow rapidly and consequently has a low dissolved oxygen content. There is significant interest in the part of MWRDGC and the surrounding communities of Evanston, Skokie, and Wilmette to raise the dissolved oxygen because it will improve the aquatic ecosystem and also enhance the aesthetic qualities and recreational potential of the waterway.

In a capstone design course sponsored by ITI, senior undergraduate students in Northwestern’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering are addressing this issue. Through a foundation of lectures and field trips early in spring quarter, student teams are investigating various methods of oxygenating the water. This includes active means such as augmenting the flow and pumping air directly into the channel, and more passive means such as side-stream aeration, where cascading elevated pools provide oxygen through natural turbulence and mixing. The teams are pursuing “soup to nuts” designs, which begin with conceptualizing potential solution schemes, investigating aeration methods and sites, calculating design requirements, and tabulating final capital and operational costs of the project. Teams are also pursuing energy audits of their designs, in the interest of making the selected aeration systems as environmentally friendly as possible.

In contrast to traditional university engineering courses centered around problem sets and exams, this course focuses on the team experience through investigation of an unconstrained, open-ended problem. As they approach the culmination of their project and graduation from the university, the excitement among the students is easy to observe.

“Working on the NSC project allows me to hone my skills as a civil engineer in a real world application, understanding the intricacies of today’s society and how we as engineers can work to improve the life of others,” says Raymond Chan, a graduating student in the class, who will begin Ph.D. program in Transportation Engineering at Northwestern in the fall. It is the hope of all faculty and students working on this project that in coming years, the NSC will become a waterway that is increasingly enjoyed by Northwestern students and local community members alike.