By Neil Nachbar
The Solar Decathlon is a bi-annual, international competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges teams of college students to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses.
URI Assistant Professor Gretchen Macht, who heads the Sustainable Innovative Solutions (SIS) lab at URI, brought a small group of students to the decathlon from Oct. 5-15 in Denver, Colo. to study the relationship between the success of the teams and how the team members collaborated on their projects.
The three students who joined Macht on the trip were Hasan Shahriar Simanto, who is pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering; Cara Liberati, a senior who is completing her bachelor’s degree in industrial & systems engineering; and Gabriella Aiello, a junior who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in industrial & systems engineering.
The event provided Simanto with the setting and data he needed for his master’s thesis project.
“The objective of my research was to explore whether there is a relationship between an individual’s propensity for sustainability and environmental actions, and a team’s outcome on a sustainability-oriented engineering project,” explained Simanto. “This particular population would be able to demonstrate if pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors do indeed link to team performance at the decathlon.”
Liberati and Aiello assisted Simanto in gathering information by interviewing participants from the 11 teams that competed.
“As undergraduate researchers, Cara and Gabby were invaluable assistants with the data collection process and recruitment,” said Macht.
“I learned a lot about the different ways the teams were formed, the roles they gave each other and the competition in general,” said Liberati. “I was really amazed with the creativity of the students and their ability to build these homes while studying for school.”
Liberati, who is from Jamestown, RI, is minoring in sustainability and business.
“Some of the innovative energy systems used by the teams will be covered in my solar energy course next semester,” stated Liberati.
Like the Olympic decathlon, the Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests. The contests evaluate cost-effective design; innovation balanced with market potential; water and energy efficiency; energy production and time-of-use energy; and communications strategies.
“It is a very intense, time-consuming competition and it takes a special group of people to participate,” said Aiello. “I learned a lot about different energy efficient products and designs.”
Aiello plans to attend graduate school, where she would like to study something related to sustainability.
“I am very interested in humanitarian engineering and environmental studies,” said the Lincoln, R.I. native.
Simanto, who is from Dhaka, Bangladesh, is still sorting through the data that Liberati and Aiello collected. He is hopeful that the information will answer the questions raised in his thesis.
“The data will help answer what makes a good performing team for a sustainable project and if individual pro-environmental attitudes matter for a sustainable project,” stated Simanto.
After he completes his degree, Simanto would like to work somewhere in the energy sector that would foster his passion for sustainability.