Student tours of Abbott Power Plant provide opportunity for self-directed learning
The plant, located on Oak Street near campus, uses cogeneration to simultaneously produce hot water and electricity for the campus year-round. Abbott has been one of the university’s power providers since 1940, and currently covers more than half of the total electrical demand.
“We are committed to facilitating access to our core customers, the university academic units,” said Mike Brewer, Utilities Engineer for Abbott. The plant regularly welcomes many groups to tour its facility, such as scout troops and elected officials.
MechSE senior lecturer Leon Liebenberg, who teaches ME 200 (Thermodynamics), knows the value of getting students involved in hands-on, self-directed work in collaboration with companies. Abbott’s close location to and integration in the Illinois community made it the perfect place to start an on-going collaboration for students.
“I want my students to become immersed in a real-world engineering environment so that they connect at an emotional level with subject contents,” Liebenberg said. “I want them to have a meaningful experience that will help them become better global citizens.”
This past month, teams of students from ME 200 worked on projects at the power plant that included giving self-structured tours to groups of 15-20 non-engineering majors.
The groups also produced educational material about the plant that were made publicly available on social media. The project was structured to give students more control of their decisions, allowing them to choose how to deliver their material. Some chose to produce graphic novels or online quizzes, while others opted for virtual experiences such as a 360-degree tour.
Throughout the semester, ME 200 students also work on projects for the Oak Street Chiller Plant as well as Build Equinox and Andrae’s Harley Davidson. Liebenberg anticipates MechSE’s collaboration with Abbott will soon evolve as other classes such as fluid mechanics become involved with projects for the plant.
“For me, it’s about self-directed learning and getting the students interested about a topic so that they teach themselves about it,” Liebenberg said. “Self-directed learning can be employed in any field. And when students have autonomy in their work, when they work in teams of people with complementary thinking skills, then their project becomes fun.”
Abbott has regularly provided guided tours to civil, environmental, and nuclear engineering classes, as well as technical writing students and others. Liebenberg first approached the plant regarding tours for MechSE students in August 2017, and the plant has collaborated with the department to run several per semester since then. However, this was the first time that student groups led the tours themselves.
“We feel honored that the engineering educators find value in bringing their students over to the plant to complement their in-class instruction,” Brewer said. “Our staff gets to interact with our customers—the next generation of leaders in energy and engineering—and see the real people who benefit from our effort to provide reliable, responsible, and ready energy.”