The EcoRealm Environments project aims to design a prototype for a campus "living wall."

The EcoRealm Environments project aims to design a prototype for a campus “living wall” that could be scaled for use in future buildings. From left, Evy Rahmey '23, Gia Gast '24, Sebastian Wick '24. 

Growing Green

EcoRealm Environments explores retrofitting spaces with hydroponic grow systems—and boosting people’s wellbeing.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Inside college libraries, students can study, collaborate and conduct research with many of the necessary tools at their fingertips. Office settings allow employees to move between their workspace and conference rooms in order to be as productive as possible. Once inside, however, students and employees are often unable to enjoy the mental wellbeing boost or stress-relieving benefits nature can provide.

A Campus Sustainable Impact Fellowship (CSIF) team, working on a project known as EcoRealm Environments, is trying to change that.

The team spent its summer at Mountaintop, working to create a prototype for “living spaces”—cubicles or partitions made up of low-maintenance hydroponic systems that house non-allergenic plants that are shown to decrease stress hormones.

EcoRealm Environments was one of 40 projects that were part of the annual Mountaintop Summer Experience at Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus. Teams spent 10 weeks trying to develop innovative ways to solve community and global problems. Work on all of the projects will continue through the academic year under the direction of faculty mentors.

Student Sebastian Wick working on a project called EcoRealm Environments.

Student Sebastian Wick '24 working on the EcoRealm Environments project.

The Mountaintop Summer Experience is unique in that it allows students to focus solely on their project full-time as opposed to a class that only meets a few hours per week. There is also no other course work, or distractions, which exist during a typical semester. That focus is one of the most valuable parts of the Mountaintop Summer Experience, according to Brian Slocum, managing director of Lehigh’s Wilbur Powerhouse and Design Labs and a co-mentor for EcoRealm Environments.

“They can pour their heart and soul and all of their focus and energy into something,” Slocum says. “They see an ownership of the project in a way they don’t in most other things in their academic careers. And it becomes the project itself that drives them—not a grade or an artificial deadline—but rather a desire to make a difference and see their ideas become a reality. Whereas a regular class assignment would be a blip on the radar for these students, these projects consume them.”

‘Creating a Real Product’

The idea for EcoRealm Environments was born in a brainstorming session for potential CSIF project ideas. Slocum and Katharine Targett Gross, Lehigh sustainability officer, met with Khanjan Mehta, vice provost of Creative Inquiry and director of the Mountaintop Initiative, and Bill Whitney, administrative director of Creative Inquiry, and were particularly excited about erecting a living wall—panels with plants growing on them in a medium such as water, stone or soil—in a building on campus. 

As often happens with these projects, however, there was a major pivot from the original idea once students took over, Slocum says.

In spring, a team consisting of Sebastian Wick ’24, Evy Rahmey ’23, Giavanna Gast ’24, and Ella Fabozzi ’22 found that many living walls already exist, but must be installed during the construction of a space or building. The students didn’t find any products that could be installed retroactively. Their new goal? To create a low-maintenance system that could be added to existing libraries and offices.

“We realized a lot of places don't have the funds to renovate an entire building and put in new plants. They need something like this that's more accessible and cheaper,” Wick says. “We’re trying to make an easy option for institutions such as Lehigh, or corporations, or maybe even hospitals, to bring plants into buildings, especially considering how valuable they are in terms of mental health.”

At the start of summer, Wick, Rahmey and Gast began working on a design based on a versatile, self-maintaining hydroponic system that could act like Legos, easily connecting multiple systems to form a working space for consumers.

They knew what they wanted. What they didn’t know, Gast says, was pretty much everything else. The students had to figure out the type of plants to use and the system’s design, and they had to create the system’s technical aspects. The team also had to figure out the demand for the product. They had just begun to define their primary users and customer segments, according to Gast, so they had not spoken to many possible consumers. 

“This was a really big thing for the summer,” Gast says. “Understanding ‘OK, well we have this idea, but it's very conceptual. How do we actually go from this idea to creating a real product?’”

Most of the summer, Wick says, was spent building a system, performing hands-on testing and then figuring out a business model. They learned how hydroponics work, built an initial drip irrigation system and then tested a hydrofilter for how often the water needed to be filtered.

Wick says the team hopes to have a system built in 2022 that is ready to be sold to the public. It’s a quick turnaround but this is a group of students Slocum refers to as his “Dream Team.”

“These students possess the drive and the passion to make this project successful. They have a willingness to take a deep dive into all of these disparate topics and emerge experts. I don’t think they have failed to execute on any level,” Slocum says. “And they just keep coming back for more and more and more and more. They’ve also had an amazing development as a team.  They’ve really clicked and become a cohesive group in a way you don’t always see in teams.  ...All of them believe in the project—I believe in the project—and the end result is a project that evolves in this incredibly symbiotic way. It is such a joy.”

Seeing each team member’s transformation and growth as both an individual and a student is something else that makes the experience special for Slocum.

“If I could do this all the time, every day, if working with student teams was my only job, I would be in heaven,” Slocum says. “It is so rewarding to work with the students in this way and watch them grow and evolve first hand.”

Nicholas Sawicki, associate professor of art history and chair of the Department of Art, Architecture and Design, is also mentoring the team. 

“One of the things that Mountaintop projects enable students to do is to undertake a kind of applied research, or a level of applied research, that we, faculty, across a lot of different disciplines, try to embark on in the classroom but can't really push forward at such a large scale as the Creative Inquiry projects are able to do,” Sawicki says.

“So watching this group of students wrestle with what it means to perform applied research on a larger scale, simply from questioning ideas to actually testing them out, is really fantastic. It's a level of experiential learning and applied research that most of us as faculty are simply structurally unable to undertake in the classroom.”

Challenges Remain

Constructing an affordable system to purchase and operate is only one obstacle for the team. They also need to limit the necessary maintenance, according to Wick.

Wick says they chose a hydroponic system knowing it would require little water. The water the system needs it receives from a connected dehumidifier system, which refills the hydroponic reservoir with water removed from the air. He says the amount of water the dehumidifier collects is enough to cover the system’s needs, which removes the limits on where the system is placed since a connection to a water source isn’t necessary.

The team is also experimenting with what plants they can use. They would like to include a wide variety but they’re somewhat limited. First, Wick says, they’re looking for plants containing the organic compounds shown to decrease stress. The plants included also need to have a similar acidity, or pH, from the nutrient solution in the hydroponic system. Wick said another requirement is hypoallergenic plants so people with pollen allergies can freely use the area where systems are installed. He said the team is currently working with Joseph’s coat, apple mint and Marble Queen pothos.

The only routine maintenance Wick foresees is replacing a filter and occasionally checking on the plants. Their prototype monitors itself for any issues and LED lights are activated if the system isn’t functioning properly. For instance, if the alkalinity is too high and not changing, meaning the filter isn’t working, Wick says, an LED bulb illuminates. Eventually, Wick says they would like to connect the system to wi-fi so a phone app or website could alert the owner of any issues.

Product Interest

The team made numerous contacts outside the university to help shape and influence their design. They toured Allentown, Pa.’s City Center development, which includes a living wall and biophilic space, and spoke with City Center’s vice president and director of project design and corporate branding. The students also met with the university architect at the University of Puget Sound, who went from not being interested in their project prior to their meeting to wanting to keep in touch about their progress, Slocum and Gast said.

“Through having a conversation and really discussing, and I think showing how dedicated and passionate our team is, we got other people excited about the project,” Gast says.

EcoRealm Environments

Gia Gast '24 works with plants as part of the EcoRealm Environments project.

EcoRealm Environments has support at Lehigh, as the team has met with both Greg Reihman, vice provost for Library and Technology Services and director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, and Brent Stringfellow, university architect, in hopes of eventually making implementation on campus a reality.

During a session of Mountaintop Press Conferences at the end of June, Reihman expressed his interest in installing the systems in FML, while Stringfellow said installing them would be a “no-brainer” for a lot of people if the systems worked well. The support from those at Lehigh, and outside the university, has been encouraging for the team.

“One of my biggest challenges going into the project, and especially in its first semester, was how intangible everything kind of felt,” Rahmey says. “We were throwing out a lot of ideas and they were fantastic ideas, but it was really hard for me to visualize a system coming to life. So that was a great benefit about working on this over the summer.

“We quite literally created a prototype. … To finally see it starting to physically emerge and see the physical research we're doing is great and makes me that much more motivated and excited because at first there was a lot of, ‘How are we even going to do this?’ and now we're doing it. The enthusiasm my teammates and I experience watching the parts of our project come together, combined with the support and interest from the staff, is only driving us forward.” 

No longer afforded uninterrupted weeks of work on the project now that summer is over, the project continues, although Gast admits the balance on top of regular coursework becomes trickier. One focus this fall is quantifying the amount of value the project brings to people now that the team has received some feedback. Gast also expects to head back to the drawing board for more prototyping.

“We have our automation front, we got an alpha prototype over summer, but we also want to continue tweaking it, refining it, honing it, changing things as needed and as more technical issues come up,” Gast says. “We also have the design front of putting everything together. So once we get feedback from students, and once we get even more proof of technological feasibility, we're going to kind of bring these together and actually create a beta prototype, or a prototype that's really, really representative of what we want to do.”

________________________________

Now in its ninth year, the Mountaintop Summer Experience has grown dramatically since its inception. In 2017, the program began transitioning the summer projects into year-round ventures that accelerate in the summer. And in just the past two years, the number of Mountaintop projects in progress has nearly doubled, totaling 40 multi-year projects this past summer.

Upon its launch, the Mountaintop initiative attracted the attention of numerous national media outlets, including coverage from The New York Times, Business Insider, Fast Company and The Washington Post.

________________________________

‘From Inquiry to Impact’

In addition to EcoRealm Environments, students participating in the Mountaintop Initiative are working on more than 30 projects. Here are a few of the ongoing projects.

 

PlasTech Ventures

Faculty mentors: Ganesh Balasubramanian and Brian Slocum

In its third year, the project aims to provide income opportunities for women in a partnering local community (Malabon, Metro Manila, Philippines) by building a community-based, micro-recycling facility. The students envision women in the community manufacturing the up-cycled products in an emphasis on gender equality and empowerment. The team focuses on developing equipment and marketing opportunities while also creating a path for technology transfer and training.

PlasTech Ventures

Student Cayla Brint '23 holds plastic particles. Brint was a participant in Lehigh's PlasTech Ventures.

 

NeuroSalon

Faculty mentors: Julie Miwa

NeuroSalon’s goal is to build a bridge between brain sciences and the arts, and encourage stimulating, thought-provoking and consistent dialogue between them. The students say they are not creating new neuroscience, they’re explaining existing complex neuroscience ideas in an easily accessible way. One focus this summer was exploring the relationship between creative thought and empathy, and the need to create open mental spaces for each of these cognitive domains. Students workshopped ideas for a set of NeuroSalon art (sculpture and murals), a website of ideas and the development of a multimedia performance art piece. They plan for the work to be performed in Spring 2022, in conjunction with a panel discussion on creativity.

NeuroSalon

A student working in Lehigh's NeuroSalon.

 

GRO Mushrooms

Faculty mentors: Khanjan Mehta

Gro Mushrooms strives to improve local food security, reduce malnutrition and augment livelihoods by designing a commercial mushroom production ecosystem in Sierra Leone. Three years into the project, students are working on increasing oyster mushroom production from 10 kgs/month to 1,000 kgs/month. To increase production the team continues to redesign facilities, develop business and operational models, develop marketing strategies, write grant proposals and find partners to scale operations and address growth issues as they arise.

GRO Mushrooms

Asgar Ali ’23 holds one of the mushrooms from Lehigh's GRO Mushrooms project.

 

Data Driven Imaging

Faculty mentors: Yaling Liu

Aiming to make 3-D printing and additive manufacturing more reliable and accurate, the project focuses on a data-driven method for calibration and reducing imperfections in the process of lithography or 3-D printing using the stereolithography and digital light processing methods.

Data Driven Imaging

Students working on Lehigh's Data Driven Imaging project.

 

Southside Permaculture Park

Faculty mentors: David Casagrande and Al Wurth

In development since 2018, students are contributing to the design and building of elements in the park while working to expand community partnerships to improve community relations and make the park an education site. The park, located next to Lehigh’s Eco-house on Summit Street, utilizes a zero-waste philosophy that mimics ecological processes to provide food as well as ecological benefits such as urban storm-water runoff reduction, carbon sequestration and increased biodiversity.

Southside Permaculture Park

Students working at the Southside Permaculture Park.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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