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Shades of green in systems thinking

A trend towards sustainable systems and design has been growing in the College of Engineering for decades – and for students and faculty, the focus on “green” research and education is stronger than ever.

Like budding leaves along a vista of trees, the term “green engineering” comes in all shades and hues at Virginia Tech. 

To Hayley Capilitan, green engineering is a team of 47 students designing a wind turbine for a U.S. Department of Energy competition.

To Saifur Rahman, it’s figuring out how to deploy storage capacity to make electricity more useful from photovoltaic panels like the array he first erected in 1988 atop Whittemore Hall.

To Sean McGinnis, green engineering is shorthand for sustainable systems. It’s analyzing the overall environmental impact of, for instance, ethanol, which does reduce fossil fuel consumption but also requires energy to grow the corn as well as pesticides that contaminate water systems.

Green engineering, to Tripp Shealy, literally means green – incorporating plants, trees, grassy roofs and other bio-features into an engineering design.

Despite its many divergent branches, green engineering’s roots lie deep within Virginia Tech's commitment to infuse environmentally conscious attitudes, values, and principles, combined with science, technology, and engineering practice, all directed toward improving local and global environmental quality.

As Maryam Shakiba, assistant professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who studies how macroplastics in the earth’s ocean waters break down to microplastics, states:

“All engineering should be green, ideally.”

Starting with solar

In some respects, the College of Engineering’s greening was first planted in 1979 with the hiring of Rahman. Today he is the Joseph R. Loring Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, but 43 years ago he was a young professor with a newly minted Virginia Tech Ph.D. in electrical engineering. 

Rahman’s research had been in nuclear energy, a field that literally imploded that year with the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. But he’d been fortunate that summer prior to his Virginia Tech appointment to work at Duke Energy, where he had explored solar and offshore wind as potential energy sources. 

“So I had those studies and the experience, and I had the data, so I thought why not use this to build a course at Virginia Tech?” Rahman reflected.

In 1988, he supervised construction of a solar photovoltaic lab on the roof of Whittemore Hall on Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg, which held the title of largest university-based solar facility on the East Coast until Georgia Tech’s installation in 1996 for the Atlanta Olympics.

“If you can motivate young minds to do something good, something for people who are disadvantaged, they take it upon themselves to do the extra work and provide a solution.”


Soon thereafter he transferred to the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, where he built another rooftop solar facility that monitors performance under different weather conditions. His expertise, though, involves the complexities of integrating renewables into the power grid. He recently returned from a 13-day lecture tour in London, Paris, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh where he spoke on these topics, and he is the incoming president of the 400,000-member Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) – the first Virginia Tech faculty member to assume this position and the only resident of Virginia to do so in at least 50 years. 

But perhaps his proudest achievement is his students. For a class project a few years ago, his students installed a wind turbine at a West Virginia home for foster children to provide the facility with electricity.

“If you can motivate young minds to do something good, something for people who are disadvantaged, they take it upon themselves to do the extra work and provide a solution.”

Student teams tackle renewable wind energy 

One such young mind is Hayley Capilitan of Long Valley, N.J., who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. During her four years at Virginia Tech, she spent as much time in the Advanced Engineering Design Lab as she did in class as a member of the Wind Turbine Team. 

“The skills I learned in classes were good and applicable to a wide range of things,” she said, “but it wasn’t until I was on the team that I was learning wind industry terms – things about power and aerodynamics.”

Started in 2016 by Matt Kuester, research assistant professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the Wind Turbine Team each year competes in the national Collegiate Wind Competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. Virginia Tech has consistently ranked in the competition’s top five.

Students at Blacksburg Middle School set up and test  a  wind-powered prototype under the direction of Virginia Tech's Wind Turbine Team. Members of the team work with students as part of several local outreach activities. 

Elementary students making and testing a windmill.
Elementary students making and testing a windmill.
Elementary students making and testing a windmill.
An elementary student working with a faculty member to build a windmill.

“The hands-on knowledge of taking what you learn in the classroom and applying it is really valuable,” Kuester said. “I’m looking forward to the next 20 to 30 years for the future of our planet, for these students to continue developing sustainable energy sources.”

More than 200 Hokies have been part of the team since its inception, including 47 this year who represent all engineering departments – from the siting challenge subteam (civil engineering) to the blades subteam (mechanical and aerodynamics) to the power systems subteam (electronics and controls) – as well as finance and business.

Explains Capilitan, the team’s project manager: “I didn’t realize how much that every decision you make in design has an economics side that may determine how viable it is.” 

The team even boasts a communications major who promotes their work on social media.

In May, the team traveled to the AWEA CLEANPOWER conference in San Antonio to compete in the 2022 Collegiate Wind Power Competition, where they won the Connection Creation Contest. Later this summer, Capilitan’s next stop will be Greeneville, S.C., where she has landed a job with GE Renewables… to work on wind turbines.

Wind Turbine Team group shot.
In May, the Wind Turbine Team traveled to the AWEA CLEANPOWER conference in San Antonio to compete in the 2022 Collegiate Wind Power Competition, where they won the Connection Creation Contest. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

Thinking holistically about sustainable design

In addition to her mechanical engineering major, Capilitan graduated with a minor in Green Engineering – one of about 150 students who leave Virginia Tech each year with such a distinction.

Created in the early 2000s by a collection of engineering faculty, in 2006 the Green Engineering curriculum was placed under the direction of Sean McGinnis, now an associate professor of practice in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. At the time, McGinnis was a materials engineer for Johnson & Johnson in Roanoke, Virginia, working on the coating of eyeglass lenses, but he felt a calling to do something more environmentally sustainable.

“I liked camping, hiking, the outdoors,” he said. “I was interested in environmental issues, but as an undergraduate and a graduate student in engineering, I didn't really get exposed to anything. There were no green engineering programs.”

When Johnson & Johnson launched a company-wide initiative to focus on making its products and processes more environmentally sustainable, McGinnis leapt at the opportunity to take a lead.

“So when this opportunity at Virginia Tech came up, I was super excited,” he said. “Not only because I could keep thinking about it more seriously, but because instead of just being an engineer at a company making a few products a little bit better, I could teach all of the engineers, and all of the companies, to think about how to be better stewards.”

The mission of the minor is to challenge engineering students to think holistically and systematically about the projects they’ll one day design. McGinnis cites the environmental trade-offs of corn ethanol, or those of nuclear engineering, which doesn’t have the air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions associated with burning fossil fuels, but still requires energy to mine and process uranium safely as well as the challenges of disposing radioactive solid waste and managing it for hundreds to thousands of years. 

“Wind turbines are a technology with costs now lower than fossil fuels for generating electricity,” he said. “There are no emissions during electricity production and very low overall emissions across the life cycle. But there are environmental problems with birds and bats that are migrating through the path of these wind turbines and issues with disposal of the massive turbine blades, which are not yet designed to be easily recycled. There are always trade-offs for these technologies that need to be considered quantitatively for overall impact.”

A student looking at a 3D printer.
A student participating in a senior design project as part of the green engineering minor monitors a 3D printer at the Carilion Clinic Center for Simulation, Research, and Patient Safety. The team partnered with Carilion to recycle plastic medical waste into 3D printer filaments that get repurposed into the frames for face shields.
Students measuring 3D printing filliment.
A 3D CAD design on a screen.
Two students watching an instructor use a 3D printer.

Decades ago, McGinnis says, engineers weren’t as focused on environmental implications as they were on the performance of their products – and profit. 

“And what we've ended up with – which is in the news all the time now – are complex and challenging problems because we didn't think about how we dispose of this product at the end of its life, or if it uses a lot of fossil fuels, or if it contains rare minerals mined in unsustainable ways from an environmental and social perspective. So we're trying to address the problem on the front end, rather than clean the problem up on the back end. We're asking the students to consider these issues at the beginning of the design, to think about what the environmental implications could be, and then to try to make choices that minimize those.” 

To earn a minor in Green Engineering – or “Sustainable Systems,” the unofficial term preferred by McGinnis – students must take six classes including both engineering and interdisciplinary environmental content. In some cases, students can get credit by incorporating environmental concepts into their senior engineering design projects.

Recent senior design projects have involved installing a solar array atop the university’s Learning Factory, where students receive hands-on education of Industry 4.0 technologies. This year, students have partnered with Carilion Clinic to recycle plastic medical waste into 3-D printer filaments that get repurposed into the frames for face shields. 

But despite the fact that Virginia Tech graduates 150 students each year with the Green Engineering minor, McGinnis notes that turns out to be “somewhere between 5 or 8 percent of College of Engineering graduates. So that's great. But the flip side of looking at it is, that's 92 percent of students who don't have a green engineering minor, right?”

Overcoming “status quo bias”

Students aren’t the only Virginia Tech commodity in need of greening.

“I’m currently sitting in a building where I have my window open, they haven’t turned the heat off yet so the radiator is on, and the AC is on, and I teach about sustainability,” said Tripp Shealy, associate professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr., Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and coordinator of the Sustainable Land Development graduate program. “Everywhere we look there are opportunities we can do better.”

For Shealy, shaping engineering students to think more environmentally isn’t a subject found just in their books but in a more difficult text to access – their brains. 

“There are a lot of problems I see in society and the world in terms of climate change and social justice and how these things are interconnected,” he said. “We can’t keep building our infrastructure in the same way we have and expect these problems to solve themselves.”

A student undergoing a brain activity study in front of a monitor with two similar airport images but one is under water.
A student wears a functional near infrared spectroscopy machine while viewing images related to sustainability topics and concepts. These machines, when placed on the user’s head, measure changes in oxygenated blood in the brain, which shows how individuals respond to different data and make decisions.

We overbuild parking lots, Shealy says, prefer new buildings to repurposing existing ones, devise schemes to get more water to drought-stricken communities rather than employing conservation methods, and focus on the higher construction costs of green materials while overlooking their long-term energy savings. We “solve” traffic congestion by constructing more lanes, but that results in more cars and eventually the need for more road construction. 

“If you make it easier to drive to campus, then people are going to drive,” he said. “If you make it easier to ride the bus, then people are going to ride the bus. When people get up in the morning, we are nudging them in one direction or another that has environmental impacts.”

To help aspiring – and actual – engineers recognize the role that psychology and “status quo bias” has in their decision-making, Shealy utilizes a functional near infrared spectroscopy machine that, when placed on the user’s head, measures change in oxygenated blood in the brain. Using such technology, Shealy can see changes in the prefrontal cortex and show individuals how they respond to different data.

A student being fitted with a brain activity monitor by a faculty member.
A student looking at a monitor showing brain activity.

“I work a lot in psychology and neuro-science,” he said. “We know how to build net zero energy buildings, we know how to put solar panels on roofs, we know how to capture storm water with green systems. It’s not a technological issue. It’s a behavioral issue.”

An issue that Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering works daily to illustrate – incorporating the full spectrum of its favorite color – one design, and one engineer, at a time.

Photos and video by Peter Means

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