Team Revamps Windmill to Educate Elementary Schoolers

Feb. 24, 2022

Michael Debbins and Shane Lawler.jpg

Two students look at the camera through the center of a decorative windmill. Behind them is a blue sky
Michael Debbins and Shane Lawler at work on the Tucson Village Farm windmill

Project Title: Windmill Conversion

Team 22057 Members:

Michael Debbins, aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering

Shane Michael Lawler, project lead, electrical and computer engineering

Justin Sigmund Schoentag, project procurement lead, mechanical engineering

Michael Whitley, mechanical engineering

Caleb Kawaiolohia Yoshiyama, engineering management

Sponsor: Tucson Village Farm, supported by the Craig M. Berge Community Project Fund

The Interdisciplinary Capstone Program began funding community engagement projects with the Craig M. Berge Dean’s Fund in the 2020-2021 school year. Last year, the Reid Park Zoo benefited. This year, the funds are sponsoring two projects at Tucson Village Farm, a 4H youth development program that is part of University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Their mission of positive youth development takes several forms, but one focus area is agriculture and nutrition education.

The farm tasked one capstone team with converting a donor-gifted decorative windmill into a power generator for one of its buildings.

“I think a lot of us were interested in the fact that Tucson Village Farm was a nonprofit organization,” said Justin Schoentag, mechanical engineering major and project procurement lead. “They’re definitely an organization that’s focused on doing helpful things for the community.”

But the students were not allowed to alter the aesthetics of the windmill, and considering that wind in Tucson is sporadic, they quickly realized powering a building as planned was not doable.  

“By the time we connected to the grid to enter that electricity into the building, it would all be lost, pretty much,” said Shane Lawler, project lead and electrical and computer engineering major.

So the team worked with advisor Thom Plasse, a senior instructional specialist at the farm, to redefine the project scope. They shifted the plan to creating a standalone, off-the-grid educational demo for schoolchildren. Though the windmill can’t generate enough energy to power a building, it can produce enough to demonstrate the concept of wind energy to students.

“We kind of made the new goal of the project to be educational,” Lawler said. “There are a lot of children who visit the farm, and we thought, if anything, this is an opportunity to educate and inspire them on the benefits of renewable energy.”

The team is installing a metal locker at the base of the windmill to store controllers and batteries and an interactive plexiglass display on top.

“Kids will be able to rotate a little crank, and it will power a small motor to make a little bit of electricity, kind of like a windmill,” Schoentag said. “We’re also making our own little LED boxes to show how much electricity they’re producing compared to how much the windmill is producing.”

The team has embraced the redefined project.

“I think this really gives us a good idea of how it’s actually going to work once we get out into the workplace and find permanent jobs,” Lawler said. “We’re going to be working with a whole team of engineers who might not know what the other person has going on. There’s a lot of trust here: I trust the mechanical engineers to do what they’ve got to do, and I guess they trust me to have the electrical part working.”

Plasse said his interactions with the team have been mutually educational.

“Even as small as we are, there’s so much engineering involved in agricultural operations,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun to work with students who have training in engineering, and to see the way they design the projects.”

Team 22052 is doing a second project at Tucson Village Farm. The students are designing a device to efficiently clean and process popcorn kernels, which is currently done by hand.

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