Monday, February 5, 2018

Congratulations to Our 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Grant Award Winners!
The 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award

A couple days ahead of submitting his application for the 2018 Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award, UAA Engineering student, Canyon Lewis, had a conversation with his uncle, a mechanical engineering graduate of MIT. They were discussing Canyon’s proposal for an Autonomous Aeroponic Garden and how this farming method could serve to address agriculture and food sourcing issues throughout Alaska in the 21st century. His uncle had a lot of faith in the project’s potential. However, while Canyon – thanks to his training and education – could capably manage the electronics and modular-unit materials the endeavor would require, his uncle suggested the project would have the best chance of success if he partnered with a Biology major who better understood the food-production and farming side of things.
                So, when Canyon met Claire Lubke – a UAA student majoring in Biology and minoring in Engineering – a couple hours after submitting his grant proposal to the CCEL, it could not have seemed more fortuitous.
Canyon's proposed schematic for the final aeroponic system
                “UAA’s Society of Women Engineers organization (SWE) were having their annual meeting the same day I submitted my proposal. In fact, I ran to the SWE meeting from a meeting with Seeds of Change, who were supportive of my idea for the project and wrote a reference for me.”
                Canyon didn’t recognize many in attendance that afternoon, but sat down close to a friend and started making small talk with Claire, who was also seated nearby.
                “I just started talking with her because the room was filling up so quickly and I was becoming uncomfortable,” Canyon recalls, laughing, “I asked her questions about herself. She told me she was a biology major with a minor in engineering and with an interest in undergraduate research. Once she shared that, I couldn’t talk fast enough about the proposal I’d just submitted to the CCEL.”
                The rest, Canyon jokes, “is recent history.”
                For Lubke, the opportunity to collaborate with Canyon felt mutually serendipitous.
“I’ve had my eye on this grant for a few years now,” she shares, “chiefly because I’m interested in engineering as a tool for social justice and there seems a lot of potential for doing good work with this award.”
                She acknowledges that as a functional or practical career option, engineering isn’t frequently perceived or touted as a force for activism or social change.
                “I think a lot of people get into engineering without always considering the discipline’s larger implications. On one hand, it’s a reliable job or career choice. However, engineers are also responsible for designing the spaces we live in and use, and so it’s impossible to ignore the influence their work has on our lives.”
                Claire cites, for example, the work of the College of Engineering’s Dr. Dotson - an engineer on the forefront of advancing social justice by serving a critical need for rural Alaskans.
                “Dr. Dotson’s worked to design an in-home water re-use system for families in rural Alaska in an effort to help bring water to communities who don’t otherwise meet World Health Organization standards for water accessibility.” While not often an issue that receives a lot of media attention, it’s hard to think of a more pressing or community-minded use of one’s skills than insuring citizens have access to fresh water.
            “A lot of people often express they’re eager for social change – and oftentimes there’s even money and other resources on hand to fund different projects or ideas,” Claire acknowledges, “but working to address or effect change at the infrastructure and design level of things requires a degree of critical expertise.”
                To this end, Canyon and Claire’s collaboration proves ripe with possibility for Alaska and its food sourcing.
Early stages: Canyon & Claire's project beginning to take shape

                Lewis, who grew up on a farm in Northern California, has had his eye on aeroponic farming research for a while now and notes the ways it could positively impact the challenges Alaskans face in terms of food production.     
                “Aeroponics,” Lewis writes, "supplies nutrients directly to the bare root system [of a plant] through a water mist.” This process allows plants to receive an adequate supply of oxygen and water, both of which often limit growth factors with other, more conventional soil and water systems.
                As a means of growing produce, research shows that aeroponics systems "provide the ultimate environment for the health and growth development of plants." 
Canyon cites a NASA study, for example – conducted on space shuttle Mir – that “concluded aeroponic systems perform better than dirt-grown” produce. Considering Alaska’s mostly “unfavorable” soil conditions, which Lewis describes as mostly loamy, sandy, and acidic, a “dirt/soil-less” means of providing healthy foods to Alaskans seems nearly too good to be true. Among other sustainable characteristics, aeroponic systems have been shown to produced 80% more biomass weight (fruits and veggies) per square meter, while consuming 98% less water than most conventional farming methods, and reduced fertilizer use by 60%.
                In other words, as Canyon and Claire explain for the average, science-challenged layperson, aeroponics might prove a sustainable means to grow more produce in Alaska, as well as varieties of food that otherwise can seem outside the realm of reason in the northern climes.
                 “While Alaska has seen a nearly 700% increase in its population over the last seventy years,” Canyon explains, “only about 5% of the foods we consume actually comes from inside Alaska.”
                The vast majority of produce in Alaska markets, as many of us are already aware, is outsourced, arriving to us on barges. Importing these foods from out of state leads, first, to the inflated market price many of us can’t help noticing during a trip to the grocery store. And then there are other costs as well, such as damage to products during import and the loss of nutritional value and flavor over the course of transportation delays and shipping methods.
Vertical Hydroponic Gardening at Seeds of Change in Anchorage

                While they can’t predict, of course, how successful their aeroponics project will be, now that the award has been secured, Claire and Canyon hope to have one or two growing cycles completed before the end of the semester.
                “The growing system,” Canyon writes, “[combats] the short growing season attributed to the northern climes by bringing the plants indoors, and eliminating the need for arable land.” So, once the parts have arrived and are assembled, they expect to start growing leafy greens and other low-impact vegetables immediately.
                What it could mean for stimulating Alaska’s future agricultural production remains to be seen, too, but both Claire and Canyon couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity to discover where their projects leads them.