Swarthmore Engineering Major
Designs Eco-Friendly Dorm Room
System Includes Solar Panel and Aeroponic Garden
by Nancy Nicely
For a second year, Lauren is using a solar panel to provide the electricity she needs in her dorm room. She also grows her own vegetables, at first by using traditional methods and now with an aeroponic system she also designed and built.
"I thought, what can I do that's awesome but has a point?" says Lauren, who did not take a solar energy class until this semester. "A solar-powered room seemed to fit that description. It may not be the best renewable energy, but I'm doing what I can do with the resources available to me."
The solar panel outside Lauren's room in Mertz Hall.
To get started, Lauren bought a solar panel with the money she earned as the only undergraduate doing civil engineering research at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., during the summer between her sophomore and junior years. Everything else, she says, including the batteries and invertor, is "pretty generic" and can usually be found in camping equipment stores. Altogether, she spent about $400.
Lauren's system includes a charge controller, which regulates the current flow between the batteries and the panel. This, she says, prevents the batteries from overcharging or reversing the current. "It also has a nice little LED to tell me when it's charging," she says.
Lauren assures that it is fairly straightforward to put together. "To find the optimal angle for the solar panel, you need an engineering background," she says. "But a halfway decent angle, anyone can do."
Getting a basic understanding of power and energy is one of the most valuable lessons Laurens says has learned. "It really makes me monitor my energy use," she says. "I can't just leave the lights and the computer on and leave my room. It would suck my batteries dry."
As for her garden, Lauren began growing vegetables in her room last year, including cucumbers and tomatoes from seeds she got from the dining hall's salad bar. This year, she's hoping to move away from more traditional methods.
"With aeroponics, nutrients are sprayed on roots," she says. "I've heard it allows more oxygen to reach them, and that it's particularly good for growing plants indoors."
Her charge controller regulates the current flow between the batteries and the panel.
Swarthmore's engineering program, part of the curriculum since the College's founding, is consistently one of the most popular among incoming freshmen. Of the 51 current majors, almost half combine engineering with another major, most frequently economics, math, computer science, and history.