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Civil Engineering Seniors Challenged by Real-World Projects

The North Shore Channel waterway that skirts around Northwestern’s Evanston campus had unclean beginnings: it was built as part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) in the early 20th century as a drainage canal to flush the sewage out of the Chicago River down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

When regulations changed and water from Lake Michigan could no longer be used to flush the river, the channel lost its purpose. It now sits largely unused, save for a few small boats, and the channel’s water contains a low amount of dissolved oxygen. Higher oxygen content would improve both water quality and aquatic life in the channel.

That’s where seniors in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University come in. This spring, student teams in a capstone design course investigated methods of oxygenating the water. Working with the Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty group of clinical associate professor David Corr, professor Charles Dowding, and graduate student Katie Kalscheur, the teams began with conceptualizing potential solutions, investigated aeration methods and sites, calculated design requirements, and tabulated final capital and operational costs of the project.

Possible solutions included augmenting the flow in the channel and pumping air directly into the channel, or side-stream aeration, in which cascading elevated pools provide oxygen through natural turbulence and mixing. Teams also pursued energy audits of their designs to make sure selected aeration systems were as environmentally friendly as possible.

“Working in the NSC allows me to hone my skills as a civil engineer in a real world application, understanding the intricacies of today’s society and how we as engineers can work to improve the life of others,” said Raymond Chan, a graduating student in the class, who will embark on a PhD in the transportation engineering program at Northwestern in the fall.

Throughout the quarter, teams found a true real-world experience with unexpected obstacles. The team designing the side-stream aeration system was met with the inherent inefficiencies of the technology, but they were able to develop a true community asset with a picturesque park-style site that still provided a measurable benefit to the North Shore Channel. 

The team augmenting flow in the channel learned the high price of construction, as cost estimates of installing more than four miles of large-diameter pipe proved too high. In spite of the sticker shock, the team was still able to provide a viable design to their client, with substantial cost savings compared to design alternatives that had been previously considered. 

At final presentations, representatives from MWRDGC, the City of Evanston Water Department, and local Evanston community groups were impressed with the work the students had done and were excited about the possibilities that lay ahead for the North Shore Channel.