Learning Beyond the Classroom

I came to Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., as a transfer student in the fall of 2011. Before finals week that fall, I received an email from the school of engineering about a job opening as a research assistant. I was looking for an engineering job, so I immediately sent my résumé to Kevin Amende, P.E., adjunct assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology. When I was hired as a research assistant, I was ecstatic. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this job but was excited to start my mechanical engineering experience. Since then, I have learned more than I had expected, in large part because of my work on the Rehau Montana ecosmart house in Bozeman. (For online exclusives about the ecosmart house, visit ForResidentialPros.com/ecosmart-house.)

Since I was hired, I have helped install thermocouple wiring at the ecosmart house. Thermocouple wiring measures temperature through two wires of different metals connected together that will send temperature information back to the system controlling the wires.

I also have worked with a computer program called LabView, which provides tools that help create and deploy measurement and control systems through hardware integration. The software is being used to collect data from the ecosmart house. I helped with calculations for the program, which calculates heat flux from the ecosmart house thermocouples that are hooked up to the LabView computer system.

This experience has been great for growing my engineering knowledge. I have been able to work with multiple professionals, from architects and engineers to professors and fellow students. This has expanded my view of what it means to be a mechanical engineer. Working on the ecosmart house has shown me what opportunities are available with this degree. It has shown me opportunities of working with systems that provide sustainable energy, such as testing systems to see if they can perform efficiently enough. I may even help design a new system.

Being a female, it has also been a good experience working in an environment that is predominantly male because I have had as much input on the project as anyone else working with me. And as I progress with this job, I’m sure I will see that I will continue to contribute to projects.

This job has also shown me the importance of energy efficiency and alternative methods used to improve energy efficiency. I have learned that windows can even make a huge difference. Some of the windows installed at the Rehau Montana ecosmart house automatically tint based on temperature. When the sun heats these windows, the windows tint without any electricity. Not only does this save on cooling demand, but it also provides occupancy comfort.

A thermal storage heat sink also was installed under the house. This stores any extra energy produced from the three solar thermal panels. The heat sink was made out of Rehau PEX-A pipe and placed in a loop configuration, which sits in an insulated vault encased in grout. I was very intrigued by this setup when it was introduced to me. I think it’s great extra energy collected from the solar thermal panels can be stored and used later during the winter.

Radiant heating and cooling was installed throughout the house, as well. This system is a network of pipes installed under floors and in walls and ceilings. Cool or warm fluid runs through the pipes to gently heat or cool an area. Radiant heating and cooling optimize comfort and eliminate cold spots and temperature fluctuations. The fluid circulating in the pipes is part of a closed-loop system, which means it is constantly being recirculated and reused. These are only a few of the systems that were installed in the ecosmart house and each one improves sustainability and alternative energy options.

Working on the Rehau Montana ecosmart house has given me a great opportunity to not only learn more about engineering but also to interact with people I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn from if I wasn’t hired as a research assistant. I haven’t noticed my classes really linking up with what I have been working on, but I know when I get to complementary classes, this research opportunity will have given me a great introduction. This job also has opened my eyes to some of the job possibilities that are out there when I graduate. It is great to be learning about all these energy-saving systems because when I have my own house, I hope to apply what I have learned and discovered. I know that these alternative energy options will help save money, as well as protect our limited resources. They may be more costly upfront but, in the end, they pay dividends to the user.

Breeann Foran is a mechanical engineering student at Montana State University, Bozeman, Mont. She is expected to graduate in 2015.

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