Photo by Sarah Williams
It’s 8 a.m. at Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, Ohio, and a cloud of fog lingers just above the top of 10 greenhouses. The sound of farmer Kip Rondy’s boots sinking into the damp, gravel-laden Earth complements the gentle pitter patter of raindrops hitting the tops of the greenhouses. He approaches a slightly smaller greenhouse full of miniature — yet stunningly vibrant — green plants. With his slick ponytail bunched at the nape of his neck, Rondy opens the door, picks up his scissors and begins to cut each row of greens by hand.
Such a meticulous task requires three to four hours of continuous work, but he and his co-workers harvest each individual microgreen with scissors until there are none left in the trays. The farmers at Green Edge Gardens need a device that chops the greens faster and in a safer manner so they can expedite the distribution of their product to local stores and businesses in both Athens and Columbus, Ohio.
At the beginning of fall semester, Rondy met with students in the Ohio University Russ College of Engineering and Technology and asked them to make a tool that would cut the microgreens for him so he wouldn’t have to cut each bunch by hand. For the past decade, Ohio seniors in the mechanical engineering capstone design course have been constructing a variety of machines and tools that assist farmers, local business owners and community members with disabilities.
Greg Kremer, professor of the capstone design course, teaches the yearlong, four-credit-hour class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Kremer emphasizes that the final project is more than just the last checkpoint before graduation. The capstone class is referred to as “Designing to Make a Difference” for good reason.
“It pulls together, in a way, everything that they’ve been learning and also serves [as] a bridge or transition from being a student to being an engineer,” Kremer says.
Each group consists of five seniors who band together to work on a project. Kremer says the students begin the course by meeting with about 20 potential customers during the first week of fall semester. Customers pitch their ideas during a panel-like event, and the students identify which projects they wish to work on. Once the teams are assigned projects, they start a sequence of conversations with their customers, drawing and redrawing sketches of their ideas and testing those solutions through copious rounds of trial and error.
Kremer has been teaching the capstone course since 1999, but 2007 marked the inception of the “Designing to Make a Difference” community engagement theme. Collectively, the seniors create 10 to 15 projects per year. In the 2016-17 academic year, there are 14 projects being developed for local businesses, farmers and people with physical disabilities, but next year Kremer speculates there will be even more because of the influx of students coming through.
“We have an opportunity to test and give feedback to the teams in a real-world setting, whether or not what they think in their head is actually going to be transitioned into a working product and into a real [thing],” Kremer says.
Group No. 5 in this year’s capstone course consists of Mitchel Gearhart, Connor Kirchens, Shawn Ogaz, Amy Anderson and Nathan Jenkins, and together, they have been creating a tool for Green Edge Gardens that will cut the microgreens from the soil in a growing tray at a much more efficient pace. Microgreens are edible, immature greens that are harvested within less than a month after germination. They are harvested when they reach a height of 2 inches tall, and they are chock-full of nutrients.
The team chose Rondy’s project to help the 67-year-old farmer and his employees harvest and package the microgreens for sale. The solution will also make the process easier on the farmers’ bodies.
“As time goes on, it’s creating ergonomic issues,” Ogaz says. “So, our goal is to create a prototype, a tool, a process [and] do what we can as engineers to modify his process that will help him and ease the ergonomic pressure on his body.”
Ogaz says Rondy’s biggest issue is the amount of stress the harvesting process puts on the body, especially the wear and tear caused by cutting each tray by hand. To put that into perspective, Rondy cultivates between 150 and 300 trays worth of microgreens per harvest, which happens twice a week.
Fortunately, that is not the first project the engineering school has designed to reduce the amount of physical labor needed to maintain the gardens. The college’s first project with Green Edge Gardens, in the 2011-12 academic year, dealt with creating a device that would enable Rondy to cover and uncover the plants in his greenhouses. The goal was to make the process doable by one person, rather than having to gather several workers to help throw the cover over the metal stakes above each plant.
The work that team executed was further tweaked by Rondy and the farm workers, which resulted in the system that is still used in the gardens today. In the 2013-14 academic year, team Raising the Bar took on a related challenge of improving the means of temperature control within the greenhouse.
“One of the goals was to have a side of the greenhouse that would raise and lower with the touch of a button,” Kremer says. “Rather than individually rolling up each panel, it would be much quicker.”
Raising the Bar installed a temperature regulation system in one of Rondy’s greenhouses. Now, one side of the greenhouse can be raised from the bottom and, ultimately, regulate the inside temperature so the plants don’t freeze during the winter. The motor-operated version ended up being too expensive for Rondy to maintain, but luckily, the engineering team made him a handle that he can crank to lower and raise the bottom half of the wall of the greenhouse.
The ability to assess how well one year’s project functions to find ways to improve upon it with a fresh set of minds is one of the beauties of the partnership. The work is truly never done, and the mechanical engineering students are dedicated to helping customers in the community get the best products possible. Kremer says the engineers are a vital asset to farmers, such as the ones at Green Edge Gardens, simply because they are able to apply their technical and analytical skills to the fields.
“What’s really important is the sense of community that Dr. Kremer’s been developing, and it’s this relationship that’s so often not there between the community and the university,” Rondy says.
Green Edge Gardens also holds a number of workshops and training sessions for local farmers, which means the products made by the students will be shared with other farmers in the community.
“It won’t go up on a shelf,” Kremer says. “It’s not just for a grade, it will be put to practice somewhere.”
Successful products made by Kremer’s students also have the potential to be patented, commercialized and sold in a larger market. That could serve as a gateway for the seniors to start their own businesses and, potentially, manufacture many more of a given product.
Team member Kirchens says when Group No. 5 started working on the microgreens project, it devoted the entire fall semester to testing out a few potential design concepts. During spring semester, the team is pursuing a new idea that is based on some of those initial designs.
The team decided the final product will not be any bigger than a 2-by-1 rectangle, and it will be mobile so it can be placed inside each tray and chop the greens accordingly in one motion, essentially an arm extension. The fixture will be made of stainless steel due to food safety regulations, and the bottom edge of the cutting plane will be between 3/8 and 3/4 inches above the top plane of soil. The team is also in the process of finding a way for the device to still require some manual operation from Rondy and his staff.
“Another goal of ours is to keep it manual, so he can keep having people working with the greens and be directly involved, because he thinks that’s important for people and it matters to him, so we’re really incorporating that in our idea,” Kirchens says.
Team member Jenkins is confident the project will meet Rondy’s needs. When they first met with Rondy, he had a list of requirements the prospective design had to meet, including how many trays to cut per hour, how much force is required for the user input and the amount of effort needed to clean and repair the device. The team is currently finding ways to reduce the upkeep of the design, and ultimately, keep the cost low for Rondy to manufacture additional units.
Rondy’s opinion and revisions are always taken into careful consideration. By May, he will have the finished product and, as a result, will be able to retire a considerable amount from the upkeep the microgreens require.
“The biggest challenge is trying to pick the right size and scope of project that a student can be successful with,” Kremer says. “It should be challenging, but it shouldn’t be something that is infeasible or going to be difficult in terms of resources.”
Team member Anderson chose to dedicate her senior year to the project because she thought it would be one of the simpler ones to make, and she thought Rondy was a good guy. Kirchens says the project is only made out of five pieces, but the concept of the device is hard to grasp and it’s testing the team in ways the team members have not encountered in any of their prior engineering projects.
“This has been interesting from an engineering standpoint because as engineers, we tend to quantify everything. Usually, we can validate it with numbers, physics and information,” Ogaz says. “This particular issue has been more trial and error; we can apply a little bit of analytical mathematics to it but not a lot. … Quantifying the actual project or validating it using our engineering techniques that we’ve learned throughout school has been a challenge.”
Overall, the team members have been eager to take on the challenge and give back to the community through their work.
“We’ve obviously been here for a while, so we’d like to help out a local business,” team member Gearhart says. “That’s a big part of Athens, and if we could find a good way to give back, we figured it’d be a good senior design project for us.”
Rondy is looking forward to having future teams help him at Green Edge Gardens, and it means a lot to him to know the energy-saving devices are coming from Ohio students.
“If you can get this industry, this little section, a little more secure, a little more profitable, that has a ripple effect in the community,” Rondy says. “We can hire more people; we can pay them more money. I think that’s the real thing, because we’re actually building the Athens community through these programs.”