By Bonnie Beth Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications
When asked about her lifetime of work enhancing the communities in which she lives, Dr. Sarina Ergas, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the USF Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering said with a lilt in her tone, “Liz says I’m the poster child for community engagement,” referring to the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships Director Dr. Elizabeth Strom.
Ergas’s capstone engineering design course, which she teaches every spring, is a hallmark of community engagement, because the students are involved in local projects that have a lasting impact on various aspects of the Tampa Bay region’s environment. She co-teaches the course with Tom Cross, a local professional engineer with McKim & Creed, who she said is “plugged into a lot of the different projects in the local community” related to environmental and water resources engineering.
Each year, the capstone design class has a different local partner agency; past partners have included the City of Tampa, the City of Clearwater, Hillsborough County, and the City of St. Petersburg, each of which is that semester’s “client” for the project. Senior level and graduate civil engineering students begin the course by meeting the client and taking a tour of the facility. They then sketch out a plan and develop a scope of work, which Ergas said is essentially a “bid” for the project.
In the past, students have worked on resolving issues such as “beaches that are closed down because of fecal bacteria,” an excess of “algal blooms in storm water,” as well as methods to improve wastewater and drinking water treatment processes. Ergas described these as “interactive” projects. “It’s not just a small part of the class, it is the class.”
Thus, these are fully integrated service-learning projects designed to give students “real world” experience solving the kinds of problems they will be hired to manage in their careers, as well as lending the expertise of the students and faculty to a local entity—and vice versa.
The students, in teams of 4-6 students, focus on different aspects of each project. For example, in a team working on a drinking water disinfection project last spring, one student looked at the design of a new system, another looked at modifications to the existing system, one looked at problems of taste and odor, and another carried out a comparative economic analysis. At the end of the semester, the students produce a final report that they present at the client’s site, so that employees from all parts of the operation can attend, as well as interested members of the community. Then, the clients’ in-house engineers and consultants pick up right where the students left off, using their recommendations to further develop the projects.
The USF students won the Florida Water Environmental Association Student Design Competition three years in a row [2012-14] and won the national competition at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) two years in a row (the third year results are not yet in), and Ergas said that there has been a lot of publicity surrounding these wins. Now, she said, local utilities are saying, “How about us? Next year, we want to be the project!”
Ergas said of this work, “I am not from Florida, I only moved here five years ago, so it’s been a great experience to learn about the local problems, to look for local partners, and for the students” to get out into the local community.
She spent fifteen years teaching at the University of Massachusetts prior to her tenure at USF, and said, “one of the most satisfying things for me, when I left UMass, was, [knowing] I’ve had an impact on the local environment. There were projects that I could actually see. So when I came to USF that was one of the first things I looked for. I wanted to have an impact.”
In addition to the groundbreaking work on water quality in her capstone course, Ergas, together with her colleague Dr. Maya Trotz, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, have received a grant for a collaborative project with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the Audrey Spotford Youth and Family Center. The latter is part of the East Tampa CDC (Community Development Corporation).
During the 10-week summer program at the CDC, Emma Lopez, a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, taught the CDC students about storm water treatment, and together they built a rain garden. Lopez worked with a local artist and the students to paint a mural and rain barrels, depicting the kind of environment they wanted to live in.
Lafe Thomas, Youth Development Manager of the CDC, remarked that she loved the rainwater collection program with USF because Lopez “showed them how to do it instead of telling them what to do.” She believes that the project makes the students much more conscious of the water all around them.
The CDC students took a tour of the laboratories at USF; and they are responsible for taking what they learned and testing the water that passes through the rain garden to help facilitate Lopez’s research.
“What I liked the most was to see how with just some discussion and activities on rain gardens, protecting our environment, and anthropogenic effects on natural bodies of water, they really opened up with enthusiasm and creativity on protecting nature,” said Lopez. She continued, “These young students are the stewards of our Earth and it’s important they have an appreciation for her so that they can help make a positive impact that fosters a clean environment to last for generations to come.”
When Ergas visited with the students, several of whom were graduating high school seniors, she got the group talking about the possibility of a career in engineering, which as she says, affords an opportunity to “make useful things for society” such as roadways, pipelines, canals, and water treatment plants. She told them her specialty is “figuring out how to make wastewater clean enough to go into the bay.”
She made this career path seem even more attainable by sharing her own experience that she had a baby at a young age and dropped out of school for seven years to care for her child. With dogged determination, Ergas caught up to her peers.
She said, “It seems hard, but you just do it one step at a time. Just keep going forward.” By 31, she received her bachelor’s degree; and she kept plugging along until she received her doctorate and began teaching at the college level.
You could hear a pin drop as Ergas spoke. It is relatively rare for a professional engineer to make a pitch to young people; most have to discover that path on their own.
Lopez said, “We need to see more of this. Of USF reaching out into the community.” Thus, Ergas lives up to her “poster child” reputation for inspiring current and future engineers of all ages.