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Hunter Bindas and Abby Warwick
April 22, 2019

Students search for solutions in new CEE innovation competition

Written By: Tom Ziemer

In more ways than one, Hunter Bindas and Abby Warwick were the outliers among the four finalists of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s inaugural Innovation in CEE Competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For starters, the first-year students were up against teams of predominantly seniors. And, unlike their competitors, the two were showcasing an independent project that didn’t emerge from work in a faculty lab.

Yet the duo’s presentation on using mycorrhizal fungi as an alternative to chemical fertilizers in lawns to curb nitrogen runoff impressed the judges enough to earn first place and a $5,000 cash prize.

The new competition, sponsored by The Boldt Company, aims to promote fresh ideas in the civil, environmental and geological engineering fields. Boldt CEO Tom Boldt attended the event and presented awards to the first-, second- and third-place finishers.

Bindas and Warwick first explored their idea through a yearlong project as high school seniors in Muskego, Wisconsin. After learning about the competition, they contacted staff at the Walnut Street Greenhouse on campus and plotted out a testing schedule.

“We’re both pretty self-driven,” says Warwick, a civil and environmental engineering major.

They applied a chemical fertilizer and mycorrhizae to separate pieces of sod and then periodically measured the nitrite and nitrate levels in containers of water stacked below the sod. The mycorrhizae-treated sod consistently generated less nitrogen runoff, while also producing denser root growth. The two plan to conduct more tests at a site in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in summer 2019.

“We wanted to find something that would help the environment, because it’s a big issue in this area,” says Bindas, who’s majoring in civil engineering.

The department intentionally made the parameters of the competition broad. Any challenge within civil, environmental or geological engineering was fair game.

“We don’t want to put them in boxes,” says Assistant Professor Pavana Prabhakar, who oversaw the competition, which the department plans to make an annual offering. “We’re hoping students think outside the realm of what they learn in their classroom. We want them to go beyond and try to think about real challenges and gaps that exist within the different areas in civil, environmental and geological engineering, and come up with innovative ideas and solutions to those challenges.”

The four finalists certainly provided breadth with their projects. The second-place team—Jeff Hess, a senior civil engineering major; Edward Yeap, a senior mechanical engineering and computer science major; and Ellen Kimlinger, a sophomore civil and environmental engineering major—developed a real-time mixer that could be applied to concrete construction using 3D printing.

Senior mechanical engineering major Kelsey Hacker and senior civil and environmental engineering major Ethan Heroux took third for their work on an alternative material that could make structures such as roofs more resilient to hail damage.

Fourth-place finisher Ella West, a senior majoring in geological engineering, outlined an experimental process to improve the characterization of rock fracture permeability, which could allow oil and gas companies to make more accurate predictions before drilling.

“I want to thank Tom Boldt and The Boldt Company for providing the resources to turn this wonderful idea into an event,” says Professor and department chair David Noyce. “I could not be more pleased with the outcome and am incredibly impressed by the creativity of our students in each of the four final projects.”

Adjunct Professors Tom Foltz and John Nelson and Program Associate Katie Bourassa helped organize the event, while Foltz and Assistant Professors Paul Block and Matthew Ginder-Vogel served as judges.