Temple Times Online Edition
    FEBRUARY 17, 2005
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Students build hydroponic gardens for Rio’s poor

Photo by Fernando Regencio
Temple students created portable gardens that can be attached to walls or a roof and moved when the residents build.

Using hydroponics, a little hard labor and lots of ingenuity, five Temple undergraduates spent their recent winter break in Rio de Janeiro designing a farming apparatus that turns the walls and roofs of Brazilian homes into small gardens.

The technology, part of a broader environmental movement known as green roofing, helps residents compensate for land shortages by supporting miniature plant nurseries from their homes. Green roofing is popular in Europe for its environmental and aesthetic benefits, but this is an initial attempt to show that the technology can also provide sustenance for the poor.

“At the heart of our project is taking something that seems so advanced and making it accessible to all people,” said Pasma Apehaya, a senior engineering major in the University Honors Program.

Temple’s team traveled to Rio for three weeks to build gardens in the city’s favelas, which are shantytowns that sprouted on the adjacent hills after people migrated there in search of work.

The original plan was to build large, permanent gardens on the residents’ roofs. But because favela residents tend to build vertically with the addition of each new generation, the students had to rewrite their plans in favor of a more portable system. They redesigned their prototype into a framework of three strips of tubing that hold six plants each, which can be mounted to a roof or wall and removed with little effort.

“With every design-build, you’re going to run into unforeseen issues,” said Joseph Lulis, a fifth-year architecture student whose thesis is about resource management in architecture. “I learned how to take a design that’s nothing more than a drawing and physically make it work.

“I can say that I learned more during the process of adapting our prototype than I did during the whole period we spent researching the project prior to going down there,” he added.

Brazil team
Photo by Fernando Regencio
Left to right: Marcia Alves, Viva Rio coordinator; Luiz, group guide; senior environmental studies and chemistry major Josh Meyer (holding drill); senior engineering major Pasma Apehaya; fifth-year architecture student Joseph Lulis; and junior landscape architecture major Elizabeth Vecchione.

Lulis said the team benefited most from the various perspectives of the team members, who came from five different academic majors. In addition to Apehaya, was joined by Josh Meyer, a senior environmental studies and chemistry major; Fernando Regencio, a freshman film and media arts major; and Elizabeth Vecchione, a junior landscape architecture major.

“Even with all the adaptations we had to make, this was the smoothest design-build I’ve ever worked on,” Lulis said. “Our team didn’t step on each other’s toes. I definitely would not have learned as much on a team of five architecture majors.”

Wanting to create a prototype affordable to favela residents, the students had to be flexible with the materials they used, too.

Coconut husks became beds for the plants. To reflect light, the students wrapped the PVC pipes that channel the water in aluminum foil. A local hardware retailer fashioned them a clamp from a strip of metal.

After fretting over how many valves to use to pump water throughout the system, they hit on a way to let forces of nature do the work.

“When we were building the living wall,” Lulis said, “we thought we needed to use six valves. After a while, we had it down to four valves, then two, then none. That’s definitely not something I would have thought of from the architecture end. It came from Pasma and her knowledge of engineering.”

Their decision to remove valves altogether had an unintended positive effect.

“Our model became a lot cheaper when we removed the valves,” Lulis said. “Later on, we heard that one valve was the cost of a full day’s wages for the average worker.”

In evaluating the project, Viva Rio, the Brazilian nongovernmental organization the students partnered with, pointed to its affordability as one of its major benefits.

Just before they returned to Temple, the students were lucky enough to be showing off their prototype when the president of Viva Rio stopped by. He was floored by its design and wants to secure funding to expand the project.

“We were a bit nervous because the Viva Rio people were very skeptical when we first got down there,” said Josh Meyer, the group leader who pitched their idea to Viva Rio last summer.

“Now, they want to get funding and continue our work,” he added. “I hope we can go back down as a team this summer and teach people about hydroponics and how to build the prototypes. Once we get the project off the ground and into people’s homes, the technology can spread.”

- By Ted Boscia

Provost’s Office to put up $20,000 per year to support research by undergraduates
Hoping to stimulate student research, the Provost’s Office will dedicate $20,000 annually to an Undergraduate Research Incentive Fund.

“I encourage all undergraduates to participate in research,” said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Peter Jones. “I don’t want finances to be perceived as an obstacle to a student’s development. Cultivating research is a major piece of the Provost’s philosophy for undergraduate education.”

Jones said the promise of the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and other independent student projects spurred the allocations for undergraduate research awards.

“The ideas don’t have to be as grand as the recent undergraduate trip to Rio,” Jones said. “These funds will be considered for something as simple as paying for a student to attend a research conference to which he or she has been invited.”

Funds will be awarded on a quarterly basis, with this year’s remaining application deadlines on April 15, Sept. 16 and Nov. 25. Research funding per student will be capped at $2,000, with half of the award expected to be paid by the student’s school, college or department.

In order to qualify, students must identify a faculty mentor who will stand behind their bid for funding. They are encouraged to secure further commitments of support from their dean or department chair. All applications will be reviewed by a small committee of faculty and administrators.

Jones added that the committee will also consider more urgent requests for funding that arise between the stated deadlines.

As acceptance to graduate school becomes more competitive, Jones said firsthand exposure to research will better prepare Temple graduates.

“I know that we have students capable of this level of work,” he said. “I want students to know that Temple is a university where, whatever your ambition, we can make it happen for you.”

For application forms and more information, students should contact the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies at 204-2285.

- Ted Boscia