Featured, Science, Seward Schools, Technology

SHS Student Engineers Propose Geothermal Heat Project

by Allison Sayer for Seward City News-
(L to R): Brendan McMurray, Simon Estes, Joel Williams, Beau Freiberg, and Charlie Mack after a presentation to Kenai Peninsula Borough Maintenance director of operations and managers and Seward High School staff and students. Photo by Hailey Freiberg.

What started as a class project for a group of Seward High School students could develop into a real engineering project that benefits the Kenai Peninsula. Seward students Beau Freiberg, Brendan McMurray, Joel Williams, Simon Estes, and Charlie Mack are working on a geothermal solution to the expensive problem of heating the Seward High School swimming pool. 

The students are taking a class called “Problem Solving in Design,” co-taught by teachers Stephanie Cronin and George Skraba Reising. They were given the challenge of working on a project that would benefit the Kenai Peninsula by saving energy. They began working on the swimming pool project by creating models of geothermal systems in class.

The swimming pool at Seward High School is a valuable resource to the community. However, local governments throughout the state are looking for ways to cut costs and the pool is expensive to heat. Cutting the swimming pool budget has been discussed, but strong public support has kept the pool open for the time being. The reality remains that the Kenai Peninsula needs to reduce its budget in the future.

The students started with various models using a range of components and configurations. The model system the students found worked best is comprised of two 5-ton heat pumps connected to an 800 foot rectangle of pipes buried 8-10 feet below the ground. Additional pipes zigzag back and forth within the rectangle.

A water and glycol solution circulates within the pipes. The solution is warmed by the ambient temperature of the earth near bedrock. When the solution returns to the building, the heat pumps extract heat based on the difference between its starting and ending temperature. The students have worked on refining this model, and have run a cost benefit analysis for it.

The students have their eye on the track and field facility as the location for the buried network of pipes. The next step in this project from an engineering perspective is to take core samples of the area. There needs to be an 8 degree Fahrenheit difference between the starting and ending point of the solution in this model. The core samples will help to confirm whether they will obtain this difference in real life with their current design.

Presentation at Seward High School. Photo by Stephanie Cronin.

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The group presented their idea at the Seward Energy Forum and Fair hosted at AVTEC late in 2017. The students received a scholarship for having the best idea. At this point, the students realized this was a “plausible idea that could be pushed farther.” They began to give presentations to other groups and worked on refining their model. 

The students plan to continue giving presentations with an eye towards making this project a reality. They hope to present to the Kenai Peninsula School Board next month. They will also take a detailed look at a similar project that has already been constructed and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses to inform their own design.

The Seward High students are also learning from more experienced engineers in order to improve their design. One person who has been an important contact for them is Seward High School alum David Apperson. He is currently a professional engineer, and he has been Skyping with the boys in order to help them refine their model.

In addition to learning about models and technology, the students have had to utilize “soft skills” to bring their proposal together. The boys all agreed that teamwork and communication have been essential to get them as far as they have come.

Is this project confirming or denying students’ desire to become engineers in the future?

Joel and Simon hope their future careers are based in math rather than engineering. However, they are really glad to be part of this project right now. “I know that the pool is really important to our community,” says Simon, adding, “It’s really cool that our idea could actually happen.”

Brendan and Beau both do hope to pursue engineering in the future.

One of the things Brendan says he came to appreciate from working on this project is that “Trying to implement ideas is very complicated.” He is gaining first hand experience navigating the complexity through meeting with the Borough, seeking funding, and learning about requirements among other things.

Beau agrees that he is learning a lot form having to go through the “steps and protocols” engineers must follow to see a project through to reality. He says he is learning about the “day to day work” of an engineer. Beau also says that working on this project has made him feel more strongly that he wants to pursue a career in engineering.

All of the students are happy they have created a proposal that has a chance to benefit their school and town.

A previous version of this article omitted teaching credit for George Skraba Reising. This error has been corrected. 

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