Office of Public Affairs

USM Engineering students seeking real-life efficiencies at the Portland Public Library

In a wide, lower-level room of the Portland Public Library —  far away from the Congress Street cafe and the main entry’s warm, natural light — four University of Southern Maine engineering students bathed in fluorescent yellow.

Paul Tetzlaff, the library’s security and maintenance director, pointed up and frowned.

“We had a major renovation in 2010, but the lighting here was never enough,” Tetzlaff told the students. Work was focused on the most-seen common areas. And while the reference area remains inviting; shelves in the room were either re-arranged or removed to give the room an open and airy feel.

Lighting was a hodgepodge.

“They just kind of dropped them into the ceiling, not knowing what our layout was going to be,” Tetzlaff said. It’s inefficient. The light bulbs, 245 in this one room alone, are old, frequently burn out and contribute to a library-wide electric bill that can reach $12,000 per month, he said.

The four students — Spencer Brown, R.J. Chamberland, Alias Nasrat and Sam Edmondson — quietly listened and absorbed the information.

Their job, part of a service-learning initiative that is giving engineering students real-world experience as consultants to several area non-profit organizations, is to help the library save money and improve its lighting at the same time.

Another group of engineering students is working on ways to find low-cost ways of lighting the tennis courts at Windham High School. One is working with USM’s Office of Sustainability to find a low-cost, efficient way of heating a Portland Campus building in need of renovation. Other groups are working with Maine Health, Southern Maine Health Care and Goodwill of Northern New England.

For the groups, the projects provide opportunities to receive valuable information that can translate to real savings.

“I think it could be significant for us,” said George Cooper, the library’s director of finance. For an institution that has a $4.5 million budget, the possibility of saving thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands in electricity costs is considerable, he said.

He was also pleased to work with the USM students.

“The library is really a place where this kind of idea is cherished,” he said.

For the students, it’s a chance to learn one of the skills that engineers need, serving a client.

“It’s taking what we learn in class and using it in the real world,” student Spencer Brown said.

Such experiences are “absolutely critical,” said Ivan Most, an adjunct associate professor of Mechanical Engineering.

“This is a class that covers more than the calculus and physics and chemistry of engineering,” Most said. “It covers the business.”

“You can’t get this in the classroom,” he said. “You just can’t. It’s impossible. These service learning projects are critical to their education. Many of these students have paid internships with local companies, which is good. Here, I am trying to simulate with this experience what it would be like for them to be consulting engineers.”

Students and representatives of the agencies sign an agreement to work together until their consultation is complete, establishing a work goal for the student teams.

The effort and the ability to work together in teams is critical, Most said. It will help prepare them for the workplace.

“The concept of the lone wolf going out there and coming up with a great idea doesn’t happen,” Most said. “It really comes with people working together and putting in the perspiration to get the inspiration. It’s the only way it’s going to work.”

Story and photo by Daniel Hartill, Office of Public Affairs