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Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering


FABE Students Serve Columbus Community, Address Food Insecurity through Coursework

July 6, 2022
A student in FABENG 3200S works to install a water pump for the Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden Farmbot

Engineers are problem solvers. But when those problems are large systemic issues gripping society, answers and solutions require more than new technology, they require partnership, collaboration, and community. 

In FABENG 3200S, Engineering for Community Development in Ohio, students learn about food security issues and initiatives in the Columbus community. Then, through partnerships with two local community gardens, students design, research, and implement on-site projects to support and advance these gardens. The course bridges these societal issues with ways in which they, as engineers, can form partnerships to address these problems locally. 

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for engineers to not only see how their engineering skills can fit into an issue like this, but also understand the context around their engineering work,” said Chris Ratcliff, a senior lecturer with the Departments of Engineering Education and Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. 

The course, which is an elective open to all engineering students as a part of the Humanitarian Engineering minor, has seen over 100 engineers through its curriculum since it began.

“As a first-year, the course laid down the path of how I want to take engineering and use my academics to help other people and serve other communities in need,” said Lilly Des Rosiers, who took FABENG 3200S in her second semester at Ohio State. 

Paula Penn-Nabrit (left) founded CMNMG as a form of “free grief therapy” after the passing of her husband, for whom CMNMG is named. One of the gardens where students implement projects is the Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden (CMNMG), which was founded in 2014. Paula Penn-Nabrit founded CMNMG as a form of “free grief therapy” after the passing of her husband, for whom the garden is named. 

“It made sense to do a garden because he introduced me to gardening,” Penn-Nabrit recalls. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, CMNMG sits in a low-income low-access urban food desert. 

Ratcliff began at CMNMG as a volunteer before approaching Penn-Nabrit about what was next for the garden. 

“It was striking to me that Chris did not come with this posture of ‘I’m on the faculty, I have a Ph.D. in engineering, let me tell you what you need to be doing,’” said Penn-Nabrit. “He was comfortable engaging on a peer level.” 

Partnership lies at the heart of the course. Garden leaders like Penn-Nabrit drive the collaboration with Ratcliff and his students. 

“Being able to take that knowledge that we learned about how to be an effective community partner and kind of lace it through our engineering technical skills and coming in and being able to work hands-on with the community at their farm to help serve their needs so that we can better help the output of the farm was really cool,” said Des Rosiers. “It’s a very different way to implement technology and engineering.” 

The FarmBot installed at CMNMG, something the average visitor might point out as something clearly engineering related and therefore an Ohio State project, was actually the idea of Penn-Nabrit and her sons. Engineering students provided the initial support and continue to help maintain this technology on site. 

The CMNMG Farmbot serves primarily as a STEM education tool for visitors and summer camps, but it also serves a practical function in the garden too“The Farmbot, first and foremost, serves as a really inspiring STEM-education module in the garden for kids who come through a lot,” said Ratcliff. “This was something that our partners highlighted as the reason they were looking to install one of these.”

The “cross-pollination” as Penn-Nabrit calls it between neighborhood kids and Ohio State engineering students has filled a community need. When local children think of The Ohio State University, the football or basketball teams might come to mind first. Now, they have students in their neighborhood working for their community and supporting STEM-education tools. 

Driven by leadership from the community partners, students have worked on projects at these gardens including multi-stage composting, rainwater collection, solar energy generation, irrigation, automation, and advancing the capabilities of the CMNMG FarmBot. 

What began as an exercise in grief for Penn-Nabrit has grown, much like the plants in the garden, into something more: “I realized that this was something I started for myself, but it is something that has touched a need for other people too.”

For Des Rosiers, FABENG 3200S opened-up new ways of thinking and implementing engineering that she will take with her through the remainder of her studies at Ohio State: “There’s these opportunities you can take with engineering by implementing your own interests and trying to intersect love, and empathy, and your interest in service-learning; you’re able to help other people in a way I didn’t think possible.” 

by Chip Tuson

Funding and other support for FABENG 3200S provided by Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District, Sustainability Institute, IEEE EPICS, and the Office of Service Learning.