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Ryan McGehee

Graduate School student

A member of the Auburn University Honors College as an undergrad, Ryan McGehee wasted no time moving on to his master's degree after graduating summa cum laude this past spring with a bachelor's degree in biosystems engineering. After completing the conceptual design for the renovation of the Corley Building courtyard and watching that project come to fruition, the Jasper, Alabama, native is now on track to make significant contributions to the new and growing field of ecological engineering. Working under the leadership of Puneet Srivastava in Auburn's College of Agriculture, McGehee is helping build a model for ecological engineering curriculum that is receiving attention from other universities throughout the U.S. While all of this is a dream come true for McGehee, his top priority is his family, which includes his wife, Mary Hope, and one month-old son, David Esmon.

1. Why did you choose to study biosystems engineering as an undergrad?

Actually, I was enrolled at Auburn in aerospace engineering. I was bummed about having to take Introduction to Biosystems Engineering under Sushil Adhikari instead of the equivalent course in aerospace. I begrudgingly attended Dr. Adhikari's class only to discover that the field was growing rapidly on my heart. I had a growing sense of this throughout the semester, but the experience that truly won me over was a lab exercise in which we took local restaurant kitchen grease and, through the process of transesterification, converted the grease into biodiesel fuel. Out of four teams, my team was the only one that successfully completed the thermochemical conversion. My passion for learning had officially been ignited.

2. What is the topic of your honors thesis and how did you get the idea for it?

The Corley courtyard renovation has been a departmental effort for as long as a decade, but since the recent renovation of the Biological Engineering Research Lab facilities we have really pushed to get it done. Under the supervision of Mark Dougherty and in coordination with Steven Taylor, our department head, I developed the conceptual framework and preliminary design of the courtyard that would represent the mission and motivation for biosystems engineering. I completed my senior honors thesis on a project that would modify an existing courtyard to retain and treat urban storm water runoff from our department's primary facilities. I worked with students, faculty and professional engineers to present a conceptual design that could be used for education and outreach to current and potential students while facilitating collaborative work between consulting engineering firms and academic units at Auburn. Construction on the courtyard was completed this past September and I am proud to say that we are now using the courtyard to educate next generation biological, ecological and forestry engineers.

3. How will the various elements of the courtyard design serve as educational tools for the Department of Biosystems Engineering?

The issue with urban runoff, aside from its unique non-point source pollution mechanisms, is that it occurs in large volumes of water very quickly. The bioretention cells serve as an example of what is called a Best Management Practice or Low Impact Development, which can be used to design in a way that either mitigates or reduces adverse ecological effects of development. The bioretention cells will be used to demonstrate water quality monitoring techniques to freshman and sophomore students while junior and senior students could potentially study the hydraulic and hydrologic behavior in the soil and drain structures or even study fundamental engineering energy and mass balance relationships from in an ecological context. Furthermore, the bioretention cells and the Nichols Terrace pavers will serve as great tools for educational outreach and recruitment of future biosystems engineers.

4. You're now working on your master's degree in ecological engineering. Why did you choose this relatively new field and what are your plans after graduate school?

I chose this field because I love it and it is not well understood by society. It is my dream to be a leader in the field regardless of what position I have. I have considered careers in industry, academia and government. It is tough to say which, but I will ultimately choose whichever allows me to make the greatest impact in the field. My current plan is to complete my master's degree, and see what options are available at that point. Based on the available options and the needs of my wife and son, I will make sure that I do not sacrifice the well being of my family nor squander the intellectual gift I have been given. However, I will always and forever be both an educator and an engineer, regardless of the path I choose.

5. This summer you developed an ecological engineering case study with your major professor, Puneet Srivastava. What will this case study mean for the future of ecological engineering?

The idea for the case study originated from the problem our department has seen in students who are transitioning from assignment-based engineering to project-based engineering, particularly in the senior capstone design class. The case study we have developed bridges the gap between classroom concepts and real-world engineering practices in a sequential structure that emphasizes the design process. Students who complete the case study will enter their senior design class already having been exposed to project-based design. The case study takes existing assignments that students would have originally solved from a textbook (with limited and ideal context) and replaces them with the same assignments that are solved in the context of real-world scenarios at an actual physical location. The setting for our case study is Ag Heritage Park, but other case studies developed by other universities could present unique problems that students simply cannot learn from a textbook. We presented this idea at the American Ecological Engineering Society's International Meeting's closing plenary session, and we received a great response with other universities preparing to develop their own curriculum-wide case study. Ultimately, case studies such as this could consolidate the ecological engineering curriculum on a national scale and expose students to a new level of coordination between academia and professional engineers, while promoting creativity and a passion for learning in students. I have high hopes for how the case study will continue to grow and adapt to student learning so that Auburn will stand out as a leader in ecological engineering education.

Nov. 10, 2014