Interdisciplinary research by a team at Kansas State hopes to solve economic issues related to food, energy and water in southwest Kansas and beyond.
Stacy Hutchinson, associate dean for research in engineering, Nathan Hendricks, associate professor of agricultural economics, and Melanie Derby, associate professor of mechanical engineering, received a National Science Foundation grant to fund their research relating to rural communities.
“What we’re planning around is the idea of developing engineering solutions for rural resiliency,” Hutchinson said. “And so, what we will be looking at is how we can look at environmental quality, how we can look at engineer distributed systems and what information do we need in order to make that work?”
The one-year planning grant helps the team work on “challenging problems,” Derby said.
The team includes researchers from the University of Nebraska and Washington State University.
“We also [are] bringing together … engineers, geography, agriculture, economics and sociology, and coming together and merging our research together,” Hendricks said.
Two of the team’s objectives are workforce development and beneficial research for sustainable economic theories. At the end of the planning year, Hutchinson said the team should have a story map showing desired solutions and workshops hosted in rural areas.
Afterwards, Hutchinson hopes to apply for an Engineering Research Center grant.
“Having a center validates that you are doing cutting edge research,” Hutchinson said.
Even without the center, she said she will continue to look for solutions for rural America.
Currently, the group focuses on the food, energy and water nexus in rural areas.
“There are many aspects of healthy environments,” Derby said. “We are considering factors such as water security … and appropriate processing of animal waste.”
The team is currently working on an anaerobic membrane bioreactor for wastewater treatment. This will be tested on a K-State swine farm before being presented to stakeholders.
Hutchinson said implementing the bioreactor on a large scale poses challenges, but the great thing about the planning grant is the research aspect.
Starting in January, residents of rural areas will be invited to workshops to tell the team what they need or want in their community.
“The most important data we need are the opinions of stakeholders,” Derby said. “As engineers, we have many ways we can apply our engineering skills to help rural communities, but want to hear from members of the communities in order to understand what they need. We have planned a series of focus groups with rural stakeholders including stakeholders in Washington, Nebraska and Kansas.”
Interdisciplinary research can be tricky, Hutchinson said. She doesn’t fully understand everything Hendricks researches for the economy, just as he doesn’t understand everything done in engineering.
However, he said students on the team pick-up on new skills easily.
“There’s a lot of challenge doing this,” Hendricks said. “We’re helping engineers learn some social science … and getting economists to learn engineering. I can go listen to what’s going on, but they — the students — do get it.”