For the 2020-2021 year, I am the President of the IISE Sustainable Development Division. The mission of the group is to help align Industrial and Systems Engineers with organizations working on the UN Sustainable Development goals. This is the 2nd interview we’ve done this year, the first one was with Bradley Miller from the University of Houston.
In this podcast, we discuss some past projects to connect students with nonprofits to improve food systems in Iowa and across the country.
- Jason Grimm, Deputy Director with Iowa Valley Resource and Conservation Development (IVRC&D)
- Anuj Mittal, Senior Instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology
- Dave Adolfson, Senior Instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology
- Moderator: Brion Hurley, IISE Sustainable Development Division President, consultant for BPI
You can also watch a video of our interview below, or visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXGArdJOWzQ
- Dunwoody College of Technology
- Iowa Valley Resource and Conservation Development (IVRC&D)
- Read full show notes | Subscribe or rate this podcast
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Brion (B): We’ve got Jason Grimm here with Iowa Valley RC&D. Is that resource conservation and development? Is that the acronym? Jason, do you want to just kick us off with a little background on yourself and just tell us how you got into this line of work? I know you’ve been doing it for quite a while now and we just want to learn a little bit more about the program.
Jason (J): At the Iowa Valley RC&D, I am our Deputy Director. Prior to that, when I started at the organization about 11 years ago, I helped create our food system programming. We work on several projects that involve different sectors of the food system, from production to distribution to, eventually, the waste stream of our food system.
My professional background is actually in landscape architecture, environmental studies from a design and planning perspective. I look at the food system, from farmers to farmers’ markets to different components that can be moved around and how they interact with each other and what are the tools and resources that allow those systems to work together.
Today, our organization has about eight staff members, five that are full-time, and three that are part-time. We work on projects that either focus on a nine districts region in eastern Iowa to a few statewide projects with several different kinds of partners. We also have started to interact with others nationally on a couple collaborative projects, primarily in the Midwest, but we have worked with some others in other corners of the country as well.
B: When did you get directly involved with this? How long has that been with the organization?
J: I started at our organization in 2009, directly out of college actually, and since then, have saw my work as similar to many entrepreneurs where you find the work, you find the funding to do the type of work that you want. In my case, to try to design a food system or create a food system in our region and how we envision it to look like.
B: We’ve got Anuj here. Hello.
Anuj (A): Hi.
B: How did you get involved with Iowa Valley? What was your tie in?
A: I was working on my PhD under Prof. Carolyn Krejci since late 2015 at Iowa State. Initially, Dr. Krejci and Jason started to work on some of the projects related to food hubs and supply chain. I was involved as a student in one of the projects for which Jason and Dr. Krejci got a funding from not the central region Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education and the project involved designing inventory tracking system for a system of food hubs in Iowa. I was involved as a student at the time and since then, I have been working with Jason on multiple projects. One of the projects include designing of an inventory management system for food hubs in Washington, Michigan.
Recently, we collaborated on a project which involves designing traceability software for farmers to be used for GAP certification. Recently, Jason and a faculty at Iowa State and a supply chain specialist at University of Minnesota Extension, we recently got a funding to involve undergraduate students at Dunwoody also to work on a project on cost estimation for farmers. We have been working since four to five years on different projects in which I have applied industrial engineering techniques, but I’m really on food systems.
B: Jason, it says that you took some classes at PSU, Portland State. Is that true?
J: Yeah, I did a small exchange program during it would’ve been my senior year of a five-year program. Great university, great time, many memories there.
B: Yeah, that’s a good school. Kind of hidden in the middle of a major downtown area. It’s interesting how many students go there. It was really shocking when I found it almost 30,000 students I think, but you wouldn’t know it if you were just walking around the downtown area.
B: So you came out and lived here for about a year?
J: Yeah, for about six or seven months. It was a semester-long, went a little bit earlier and stayed a little bit longer.
B: Tell us a little bit about some of these projects. I don’t know if, Anuj, you want to start or, Jason, if you want to start? but you were talking specifically about food hubs and I like, Jason, your description of this whole system approach of looking at all the different pieces of it because, as we know, that you can get one part right, but if the rest of it’s not in sync, it doesn’t go very far.
J: I can maybe start. Anuj briefly talked about how the two of us met when he was a Master’s student, I think, still at the time. We had gotten funding from North Central SARE. One of the roles that I play statewide is I coordinate the Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group. It is a group of seven separate food hub businesses. They are nonprofits, they’re sole proprietor businesses, they’re LLCs, one is an actual co-op business structure. They all operate in different regions and areas of the state. I coordinate professional development and collaborative project development between those hubs. We meet quarterly.
Prior to the COVID, we would travel around the state and meet at each other’s facilities and do tours, allow each of that food hub to talk about things they struggle with and allow the other food hubs to hear about how they can potentially provide some, “Here’s what works for me. You might be able to implement that at your food hub.” So we have a lot of trust. We’ve been doing that collaboration since about 2013, I believe it was. Since then, we’ve actually had meetings where individual staff at some food hubs have came to tears, crying about how hard it is. They’re struggling with their business at the time, so we have a lot of trust with each other and share a lot of personal stuff. It’s a pretty small group. We don’t allow just anyone to come to the meetings; you have to be a staff or a board member of the specific business itself.
The first project, though, we saw, back in 2014, that several of the food hubs were buying from the same vendors in other parts of the state. One food hub was driving four hours from southwest Iowa to northeast Iowa just so that she could get access to Iowa produced milk that was being bottled and Iowa yogurt. Because it northeast or eastern Iowa is where we have a lot more locally produced bottles, local creameries, local dairies that are producing those products, versus in southwest Iowa, there’s fewer opportunities. So we were finding that a lot of the food hubs were cloth crossing paths and actually seeing their individual trucks passing each other going in opposite directions on the road and we were like this is totally wrong that we’re not collaborating with each other and neither of our trucks are full.
We started a project where we created a tracking software. Dr. Krejci, who was within the value chain engineering department and Anuj was a student of hers at the time, we were actually having a weekly phone call as we were talking about if you met here, would we cross paths at the same time? Would this food hub be willing to hold something overnight in their cooler and then, the next day, another food hub comes and picks it up to reduce transportation for one food hub and also allow other food hubs to be able to expand product opportunities by tapping into another food hub’s network of vendors?
We realized we needed a software to help actually track this inventory. Because we often had mistakes where things were left at one place or forgot to get picked up and which then trickled down and affected all of us in the long run. We created a simple app, with the help of Anuj and Carolyn, Dr. Krejci, that actually the truck drivers would check-in product when they picked it up on their truck, and then when they would get to the end destination, they would actually check it out so we could actually track that the right number of things were picked up and dropped off. This app connected to a label platform that the farmers or the vendors would use to label the products so that it would say the name of the farm, was it box 1 or box 10 out of 20, so that the delivery driver could actually make sure that they got everything picked up.
B: How many food hubs are there in Iowa?
J: Currently, we have seven food hubs. I think in that collaboration, we had four operating in that collaboration. Out of that seven, for example, one of the food hubs is in more north-central Iowa, kind of disconnected from our current routes that other food hubs have so we don’t have consistent crossover and trucking routes, so we’ve found it more difficult to involve them in some of these trucking and transportation collaboration projects.
That project led us into a larger set of funding, through USDA, that today we’re still working on. We’re actually designing some tools that the food hubs can use to track their inventory themselves, tools that are allowing food hubs to analyze their sales, analyze the routes. And then, just this past spring, we start a project that now is involving some Minnesota food hubs and Minnesota farmers where we can actually- a lot of the food hubs don’t have a good handle on what is the cost to deliver X number of boxes from Point A to Point B, if I have to pick it up from this firm and this farm in that route. Also, how does it play into if this is a frozen product and this is a refrigerated product? this is a box that weighs 100 pounds versus a box that weighs 25 pounds? We have some funding right now.
We are actually just started to do some- we just wrapped up some interviews where we’re trying to develop a tool that a farmer or food hub can put in information into it and it’ll give them a rough estimate back on what would be the cost to transport this item from Point A to Point B. If a food hub would use that, it would allow them to better estimate how much to charge to a customer for a service that they’re providing. Many of the food hubs found that they’re undercutting themselves and not charging the appropriate amount and they’re actually subsidizing the cost to transport something for someone else from Point A to Point B. Some of the food hubs use either a percent of the gross value of what they’re transporting or they’re using just a flat fee. Different food hubs were using different pricing structures and this tool was meant to help them dial that system in.
We’ve had students at Iowa State that have been involved in that project, from Anuj at the PhD level to multiple Master’s students, and then even a couple of undergrad students that have helped either do design of those systems, create the actual code and the engineering to create those systems. Others have just simply helped create the survey tools and the survey questions or make phone calls and actually do phone interviews with prospective farmers or food hubs. Students have been involved at different levels or different- and depending on their ability or their level of education and what things that they could actually work on.
A: Another project that I just wanted to mention is the inventory tracking system for farms in which they can trace their farm products from farm to fork, basically. That particular project started with a small funding from Grow Johnson County, and then the funding has been secured from Iowa Department of Agriculture and USDA also. We are working on that project and I was involved in the project when I was a student. That is still continuing and we have a student at Dunwoody also who has been involved in that particular project who’s an undergrad right now. As what Jason mentioned, the students have been involved in these projects from all levels, like Bachelors, Masters, and even at PhD level.
B: How is that working? is it part of the classwork or is it part of just opportunities that come up? How are the students tied into this? Is it coursework or is it project work?
A: Primarily, these projects were mostly research-based as a part of a funding. But currently, for example, the project that we have got the funding from North Central Region SARE, that project that Jason also mentioned, designing a cost estimation tool for farmers, in that particular project, we have mentioned, in the funding, to have three capstone projects for our students at Dunwoody College of Technology in the Industrial Engineering Program. That will be a more formalized capstone project being designed for the schools.
B: The other part would just be research, maybe, that one of the professors is working on at the time? and then is it grad students that would be involved or what you’re talking about the capstone is basically at the end of their undergrad, they’re coming in and working on a specific project?
A: The capstone project is a requirement. It’s I think a four credit course required for a degree completion at Dunwoody in their senior year.
J: I have found that I feel like involving students in projects, the most successful way has been where it’s either as a researcher, research assistant, or like a capstone project, similar to what Anuj just talked about. I have worked with students onwards, like a student project or a group project. I found that results back from the students have been more variable in those instances because students are doing it as just like a class assignment and it’s a graded assignment versus being in a situation where they’re being compensated or they’re being as a part-time employee. It’s been easier to manage what kind of expectations you get from the students and what kind of finished product you get. I’ve had really great student group projects and I’ve had really poor student group projects and it’s much easier to manage- I shouldn’t call it manage, but to lead and to mentor students when they have different expectations and responsibilities set up for them versus they’re just getting a grade, they’re able to control whether how much effort they want to put into the work.
B: That’s good to know. I think that’s part of this discussion, too, is how can we figure out ways to get students involved with great work that’s going on in the community, but do it in an effective way that’s good for the students, it’s good for the organization, and then, ultimately, for the community. I think those are great tips and advice for other schools to consider and think about.
J: We’ve found that a lot of the funding pieces that we have used, we’ve been able to work in- they’re not always employees, but they’re usually just typically a 1090 contract, so we’ll write in little stipends, from $500-$1200 depending on how much time we’ll expect the student to work on our project. I believe that the students are really putting something to the community and so they should be fairly compensated for their time. We also make sure that farmers or whoever the actual business is that are being asked to comment or provide feedback on some of these things are also being compensated for their time because they’re often taking time out of their professional work to do this. Those are the things that we try to work into our funding because I feel like those things ensure that the project can be successful if everyone is fairly compensated as well.
B: There’s also a listing here with Viva Farms and Michigan State Extension. Is that tied in with what you’ve talked about already or is there some other activities going on there? also, like the other discussion with connecting with other states, if you want to share some info on that.
J: Those two projects are an example of some of the tools that we’ve started to create that we’re working towards to make open source. Having students and professionals like Anuj involved in these projects have allowed us to then release tools that can be open source for other farms or food hubs to use.
Viva Farms is an actual incubator farm north of Seattle. They have about 20 different farmers that rent land from this larger tract of land of theirs to get their business started. Viva Farms, the main organization aggregates a product that those incubating farmers grow into a CSA or community supported agriculture box of food, that then they sell to a customer and deliver it once a week. They also aggregate all that supply that all those farmers are growing and then sell that to institutions or restaurants. They were copy and pasting a lot of data every week to individual Avery label templates to put on boxes to make sure they have traceability from which farm grew it to where it was being sold.
They reached out to us after hearing about some of the tools that we had created. They’ve used it for two seasons, so it’s probably almost 3 years ago we created a Google spreadsheet and Excel-based tool that they’re currently using to aggregate all the product that their farmers list stuff to. It aggregates a common inventory amongst all those farms and then it also creates a labeling system that they’re able just to hit a couple buttons and it spits out labels for them that’s branded with their business and then labels the product, the farm that grew it, what the product is, all that kind of important traceability information.
For Michigan State, we created some custom invoicing and custom traceability tools and labeling tools that then they’ve been able to share with some of their farm partners there in Michigan as well. Just like the tool the Anuj talked about that’s tracking inventory and traceability of foods that we’re growing, our organization has a program that’s called Grow: Johnson County, where we actually farm five acres of land. That’s actually where I’m sitting today is in the barn at our farm. All the food that we grew, which is about 25,000 pounds’ worth of food, we freely distribute to 13 agencies within our county that then goes into food pantries, food banks, meal sites, even neighborhood centers where some of the foods go and homeless families and through daycare centers.
We wanted to better track where all this food is eventually going, but also which part of the farm is growing it, which field. We annually get an audit for what’s called a GAP certification, it’s called Good Agricultural Practices. It covers important food safety aspects of our farm business. We were doing a lot of handwriting of lock codes on different records and lot sheets and we found that that was actually slowing down our efficiencies and we were creating a lot of errors by inconsistencies in how individuals were recording stuff.
Anuj, at the time, was a part-time employee of ours, while he was still a student, and so we had a small pot of funds that we created a custom tool for ourselves. And then when we did that, we realized that this would be an important resource for other farmers. Now, with one of Anuj’s students at Dunwoody, later this winter, we’re planning to release it as a custom open-source tool that other farmers will be able to download through our website and then we may release other versions of that in the years afterwards. But it’s been great to involve the students and Anuj, through Iowa State and Dunwoody College, to be able to impact our work so that we can make these tools available to others as well. This has been meant to be an open-source thing. We’re not planning on making any income from this, but as a resource that we can share and improve efficiencies, improve professionalism on other farms.
B: I think the ability to remove the non… I won’t say noncritical. It’s the work that you really don’t want to be spending time doing. It’s not essential part of getting food to the right places and growing food, so taking away that other work that gets in the way, I think, is pretty powerful.
A: I just wanted to add one thing is how a partnership with an educational institute and nonprofits, how this partnership can leverage and how this partnership will enable, basically, creating these tools at a very low cost so that the cost is not being transferred to nonprofits or even small farmers. That’s probably the benefit of this kind of model in which nonprofits partner with educational institute is the cost. Definitely, it’s a learning curve for students in which they definitely learn technical skills as well as they get to see the impact they’re making on the community.
Dave (D): One thing that I think is worth mentioning is the civic portion of this and getting students involved with their community. So many people look to engineering as how are we going to make the next better product or next process improvement or whatever you want to do, but there’s no reason that you can’t be doing that in the community. I think that’s a point that we need to get driven home to people is that we might as well be contributing rather than working for a big company, Toro, Caterpillar, you name it, any big thing.
B: I think the students seem to be wanting more of those opportunities to feel like they’re contributing. Not that they’re not getting it at those big companies, but they’re probably feeling probably a little more reward for that work or more connection there. Like you said, really feeling part of the community and feel like they’re making a real difference to real problems.
D: Yeah, especially right now in Minneapolis, there’s so much opportunity. I would imagine, in Portland, there’s a fair amount too with the rioting that’s going on, but our community was so severely damaged that opportunities for the students to give back is very important. Anuj and I talked about this. One of the things that we- in a typical industrial or a typical engineering program when you do your capstone, you probably have companies approach the college and say, “I’ve got this project that I want to work on,” and we assign students to it.
Finding these type of nonprofit opportunities are different and, there, really where you need to go looking is your friend circle or your professional circle. You might look at the board level of the college to see if you can find people who are interfacing in the community that can bring these products into the college. Because your typical nonprofit is not looking for industrial or mechanical engineers to come in and do these jobs, so finding them, it’s a more nontraditional thing to try and find these projects. I guess my point is we’re looking to our peer circle to find these opportunities rather than looking to having a company come in and solicit the work.
B: I would imagine that that’s a great point there, that a lot of the organizations don’t know what their need is or what is out there for resources that are looking for that project experience and so saying, “Here’s what we can bring to the table. Is the something helpful?” Probably they’re saying, “Yeah,” once you explain what your industrial engineering work actually entails, “that’s exactly what we need. I had no idea that was a whole major or a whole line of study.”
A: Jason, do you want to mention briefly about the Riceville project and then I can give some more details on that, like how I involve the student? probably you can give a little bit background on it.
J: The Iowa Valley RC&D here across Iowa, we have developed a farmers’ market manager’s toolkit for all farmers’ markets and their professional volunteers or staff that run those markets. Really, since COVID-19 started, monthly, we have been facilitating collaborative and educational webinars for farmers’ markets in Iowa where we have 40 to 50 markets talking about things that they’re implementing to make sure that their market’s safe, tools that they’re needing. A couple of the markets have asked us about ways that they could provide some online ordering options for their vendors and their customers to increase social distancing.
The Riceville Farmers Market was a small farmers market up near the Minnesota-Iowa border in northeast Iowa. A small population, but then they have a lake nearby and state park that attracts larger than the community’s population, tourists that come to that area, so they have customers that are both local as well as local tourists too that are coming to the market. They approached us about some of the tools that we’ve created and whether they could be used by their market. Anuj then, along with one of the students at Dunwoody College, helped create a custom farmers market ordering platform for their vendors and customers to use.
A: Just in adding to that, that tool was also created using a very low-cost- the tool was created a very low cost and many of the IE techniques, such as standard work instructions, creating a workflow, and all those concepts that apply to create that tool. Riceville Farmers Market has been using that for the last two months now approximately. Some of the Lean techniques – standard work instructions, and creating a value stream mapping, before and after the COVID, how the farmers market will operate – as well as it also involved a lot of tool development using Visual Basic for them to automate a lot of the operations. We don’t want them to manage a lot of Excel sheets when they’re moving their farmers’ markets to online or in that form, so we developed some tools for them to automate all these operations using macros, for example.
The idea was the idea to create a standard work instruction and idea to create this tool was how other farmers’ markets can also replicate this tool, this particular tool in this time of COVID, for example. And also, we have started to discover there are some important metrics that farmers’ markets need to actually capture for being more efficient. We are, right now, figuring it out how this online platform that we created for the Riceville Farmers Market can help capture all those metrics for farmers’ market to be more efficient. It’s kind of like a blessing in disguise – I’m not sure if that’s the right word – but I think how this online farmers market can be in place in conjunction with the traditional farmers’ market and, at the same time, making them more efficient. That was the whole object of this particular project and I can share that it is on the online platform that we created for them in the link.
B: There’s a local farmers market here that I went and helped a little bit. That was definitely a similar situation. They did have a platform they were using, but they didn’t know, the system wasn’t giving them metrics on when people had scheduled to show up, so they were blind to what was going on inside of the system. So in terms of staffing and volunteers and getting them to the right areas to be able to handle the spike in maybe pick up times for people coming through, and this was a vehicle pickup drive-through format, they were blind to that. And so that was part of it is trying to get out reports and data to say here’s what the plan is and we’re halfway through or we’re 75% of the way through, so you can start to shift resources now over to clean up and customer service and things like that. But without that, you’re kind of like we’ll just stay there just in case and that doesn’t maximize the use of the limited resources that they have. Are the students also doing the programming, like Visual Basic, or are you pulling in other groups for that?
A: The one student at Dunwoody, David has also taught that particular student. He did the coding in Visual Basic for that tool. I was advising him, but he’s the one who primarily did that part.
J: One last thing I wanted to note is one aspect that we added to the relationship with the student at Dunwoody, Alan, in this last project with Riceville is actually involving him in some grant writing experience. It was a very small application, but it was some fun to help compensate his time. It wasn’t awarded yet or that we know of, but it was just a good experience, I think, for him, as a student, to also, in this community impact world, is that he got that experience in the project as well. That’s something I would highly recommend in these kinds of student-university-nonprofit relationships too.
D: Name’s David Adolfson and I teach industrial and mechanical engineering at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As you can see, due to COVID, we’re all working at home. I’m in the basement, so it’s nice to see all of you. A little bit of background on me. I’ve been teaching at Dunwoody now for three and a half years. I came out of industry, worked at a variety of different jobs from aerospace to construction to defense.
Dunwoody is a little different. We’re traditionally looked at as a technical college. We offer two-year degrees in things like robotics or CNC machining or radiological technician’s, just a variety of different two-year programs. Over the last 12 or 15 years, we’ve run what’s called a degree completion program. We have students who come in with an automation degree or a robotic CNC or whatever. We look at that as a freshman/sophomore type experience, and then we offer junior or senior two-year completion degrees where they come out with a degree in industrial engineering.
Over the last – what is it five years, Anuj, or so? – we’ve offered a full school of engineering where we’re offering complete degrees in industrial, mechanical, software, and electrical engineering and we’re adding a controls engineering program that’s just like any other large university. The difference is that we have, I would say, this feeder program of two-year degree students that come in.
Anyway, one of the courses that I teach is senior capstone in the industrial engineering program. In that, many of our students- all of the industrial engineering students already have two-year associates degrees, so many of them have gone, gotten their associates degree, left and gone into the workforce for 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 15 years, however long it is and hit the ceiling that they can get to with just a two-year degree and so they’re coming back for a completion degree. Traditionally speaking, prior to COVID, I would say about 90% of our students are employed in industry and working, many of them working as, for all practical purposes, engineers but they don’t have the second or the correct degree to have the title, so they’re back for work.
B: Do you feel like that works well, where they can take two years, go to work, and then come back? Do you think that’s a good way of doing it in terms of getting some real-world experience or does it seem pretty similar whether they go through four years in a row?
D: I think that’s a person by person thing. Some people want to get into the workforce and start making money right away. We’re maybe digressing a little bit here, but I think colleges are going to be rethinking how they operate on the other side of this pandemic because there’s going to be a lot of unemployment. If you couple unemployment with student debt, you’ve got real problems.
I think, to some degree, getting a little bit of education and then getting out into the work world sooner rather than later is probably a good thing for a lot of people. When you’re young, 18, 19, you don’t necessarily know what you want to be, so not investing four years into a program that you maybe don’t want to do or a career that you don’t want to do is, I would say, probably a good thing. I think as you become an adult, we all have better ability to know where we want to go with our lives.
Yeah, I like this method, but it might not be for everybody. Somebody who knows that they want to be a research chemist or knows that they want to be an airline pilot or whatever it is, then you should go and do it. But a lot of people, when they’re 18, 19 years old, don’t have any idea.
Anyway, because of the great background of these two-year students who are coming back for their second two years, many of them are employed. Typically, 90% of our students are employed and are working for companies like, for instance, here in town, we’ve got Donaldson Companies, Caterpillar, 3M, on and on and on, in some sort of technical position. When they’re doing their industrial engineering training, they learn about things like Lean or Six Sigma or 5S, you name it, all the tools that you would traditionally encounter in an engineering program. They have a job where they might be working in a technician level and they understand their job and they say if I made this process improvement, I could make my job better. So many of our students do their capstones right inside of the company that they’re working for.
On occasion, though, we do have students that are not in a position where they can do a capstone project at their employer. On those occasions, that’s where we can reach out to, in our case, as Anuj and I have been working it, nonprofits and say, “I’ve got this industrial engineer. Do you have any problems?” The first thing that I had to do, the project that we did was with a company called Second Harvest Heartland, which is a part of Feeding America, a food bank here in the Twin Cities.
The way that the relationship evolved was that a close friend of mine happens to work there and she and I talk about what an industrial engineer is and I say, “Do you have any problems that an engineer could potentially solve?” And so there was just a lot of time that I had spent with this woman, so she understood what I did and what industrial engineers do. The next step in developing the relationship was I had to put together, basically, a simple presentation. I went into Second Harvest and talked to their management and said, “This is what industrial engineering is. I teach students these skills. Do you have problems inside of your organization, either logistical problems or systems problems, computing problems or whatever, where I would be able to turn my student loose and they can solve that problem for you?”
And so some of it was, as engineers, we all speak in jargon and what I found out is that the nonprofits have their own jargon. The main thing to think about is you have to be able to communicate, okay, what we call 5S, you’re calling something else. Getting past that, it’s like you have to educate the nonprofit, whatever nonprofit you’re at, that this is our language, that’s your language, they’re the same thing. We can work together and I can provide you with resources because I have students.
That was the first step and then the second step was, in our case, we were looking at a distribution and supply chain problem, but probably the bigger picture is nonprofits, oftentimes, operate on a shoestring budget and they can’t afford to hire an engineer, be it mechanical, electrical, or whatever. So for us, as instructors, to reach out and educate- first of all, educate them and then, second of all, provide them with this resource that’s of tremendous value to their organization is a very powerful thing. I would say the more institutions that can find ways to do this, the more we can contribute to societal problems. It’s wonderful because you get the education going on for students and you get the societal kickback.
B: And we’ve got a lot of students and instructors, professors that are part of our sustainable developing division and so I think this is going to be really valuable to just hear some of the ways in which they can better connect in to work on some of these really important challenges.
D: That’s just it. Like I was saying earlier, rather than looking to industry, you really need to look to your connections and your friend group to find these people and make these connections with what I would call non-traditional projects.
B: How long do you think it took to develop that, when you first reached out to your friend till when you have students actually participating, triangulating the language and all that and trying to find a project?
D: At least a year I would say.
B: That sounds about right.
D: This person that I know is a climbing partner of mine. And so as we go climbing, we would, most of the time, not talk about this type of thing, but then every once in a while, the topic comes around to it. So it was a long time coming in developing my relationship with her where she understood what I do to the degree that we can have that conversation of,” This is what my students do. Do you have an application inside your organization?” and then to take that next step of getting in front of their management and talking about this is, again, the education process. Yes, it’s a long fostering type thing.
B: How long have you been working with Second Harvest now?
D: We have been two semesters. That’s one of the other things to think about here is capstones can go well or they can go not well. The first semester that we worked with them, we had a team of three students working inside and it took them probably 10 weeks for them to understand what they were dealing with and then the remaining eight weeks of the semester, they were really quite effective. That’s another interesting point is that when you take somebody who’s an engineer who’s accustomed to working on machines or factory floor or what have you, when you bring them into a nonprofit like a food distribution network, it doesn’t feel like their traditional job. And so there’s that whole learning process of realizing how does this place work, what does this company do, that many of us take for granted going into that type of thing.
A: That was one thing that I mentioned also. The initial few weeks were rough just because I think there was a lot of, as Dave mentioned, technical jargon from our side and technical jargon from the nonprofit side. I think it took a lot of time to just understand each other’s needs. We all are on the one-page kind of situation, it took around 8 to 10 weeks. Once the students know what they need to achieve from the project, I think then it was pretty quick. In the last 8 to 10 weeks, they were able to deliver what was the objective of the project.
I think one of the main things that Dave mentioned is applying the IE techniques in nontraditional settings. I’m talking of applying Lean in traditional settings, that’s the manufacturing industry. But I think those concepts were already being taught to them in the courses they took. Like for example, quality and Lean systems and those kind of courses they took in their previous semesters, so I think we had to guide the students how 5S can be applied to data, for example. 5S can be applied to a manufacturing setting; it can be also applied to data. I think those kind of things were definitely challenging, but I think once those were being clearly articulated to the students, I think they got it really well.
D: The first semester, though, we worked with Second Harvest, the students really put together- Second Harvest knew where all of their food banks were.
A: The food pantries.
D: Their food pantries were and they also knew where food was coming from, but they didn’t have a good picture of shall I take the food from this portion of the state and move it to this portion of the state? they didn’t really know do I have sufficient capacity here for the demand or not? Anuj, I suppose we can do a screen share showing the results of that. Would that be possible?
A: I think I can share the paper that describes a complete project. I think, in short, what I can say is Second Harvest have different ways to rescue food from donors, like through retail stores, manufacturers, distributors, and for example, like agriculture surplus from farmers. They were having a fleet of trucks which delivers approximately 40% to 50% of their food to the agency partners whom they directly work with.
But the problem they were facing is they wanted to reduce their dependency on their fleet and they wanted to meet the supply and demand more of locally so that they can get the food from where it is available and distribute it there and there. So that agency partner can pick up the food from retail stores and distribute to the, for example, the homeless shelters in that particular region. Rather than having Second Harvest send a fleet of trucks to retailers and then picking up the food and dropping it off at the agency partners, they want to strengthen their food pantries to get their food by themselves from their agency partners and distribute it.
They want to do this supply-demand capacity analysis in which they know, for each geographic location- in this particular project, we considered the geographic location or unit as a census track. They studied, at each census track, what is the food availability, what is the food demand, and what is the current capacity to handle that. Based on that, the students created a GIS-based tool using Microsoft Excel and they learned it from start to within the particular semester.
That’s why, initially, learning part, it’s not like a traditional industrial engineering problem that is being taught in the courses, but still the concept apply as I mentioned earlier, so they have to learn this new tool. That was definitely a challenging thing for them, but the students, in the fall 2019 semester, they learned it, then they developed that tool, and they deliver the project to the Second Harvest.
D: Another thing about the way Second Harvest was operating was they had their supply data, they had their demand data, and they knew what their distribution network was, but that information was held in three different places. So one group knew where the demand was, one group knew what the supply was, and one group knew where the distribution centers were, but there was no transparency between the three and all of them organized their spreadsheets and data differently. The students had to take these three data sets, standardize them, sort them, throw out what they didn’t need, standardize them so they’re all the same and they could talk to each other, and then use that GIS-based modeling to show this is supply, this is demand, this is capacity geographically throughout the entire state. That project was quite successful.
The second project we were looking at, we took that information and said we’ve got areas of need in- Mankato, Minnesota area needs to be studied because supply and demand and capacity is way out of balance there. We picked out three areas around the state, began that work, and then here’s where a capstone doesn’t go well, because we had COVID in the middle of this thing, and so everything came to a screeching halt.
As far as going forward, I don’t know. One of the points to take away here is that, as you build a relationship with a nonprofit, one of the learning curves was us learning their language and then learning our language and once you’ve done that, if you have your senior- we run our capstone in the second semester of the senior year, but we can be looking at our first semester senior year and picking students for that and getting them up to speed of what that language is. I would say the first semester is the worst, but then once you’ve learned a little bit about the company, you can start grooming students for that ongoing semester so you keep rolling forward.
Having said all that, I don’t know where we’re going to go in the future because I know, in talking to the people at Second Harvest, they’re terrified about what’s going on right now. They’re afraid that their demand is going to skyrocket, especially after this month is over if the government doesn’t pass some sort of a package for people. I don’t know what next semester is going to look like for us.
A: One specific thing, Brion, I just wanted to mention is the results that the first group leader for Second Harvest Heartland, actually, this summer or this spring semester, the Second Harvest Heartland was writing a grant to improve their infrastructure in terms of food delivery. They had used some of these results that the students have come up with and some of the tools and the analysis and the numbers that the students have come up with to put that in the grant. I think the applicability of the project, with respect to nonprofits, can also not only direct impact and improve the efficiency of nonprofits, but also help them in writing the grants and using the analysis that the students do in the capstone projects to use for grant writing purposes. That’s two different impacts that would be created through student projects at nonprofits, one direct impact and one long-term impact in which could help them in grant writing and all those kind of things.
D: Getting the grants and education and what we’re teaching our students as engineers, as more engineers get into non-traditional roles, and what I’m thinking about like the healthcare fields, it could be extremely valuable for a young engineer to learn how to write a grant or learn how to apply for a grant because I think we’ll see more and more of us in these so-called nontraditional roles as companies realize they need to increase efficiency to stay competitive.
B: Jason and Dave, have a lot of the projects been tied to a grant or you think they’re more like a supplement to that? How has that been working with the capstone project or student projects? Are they linked in with the grant at all or are they, again, a feeder into the data that they need to show in the grant to get the support behind investing this money into that program?
D: I would every capstone project is different, but it certainly could tie directly into- we have deliverables and there’s five deliverables for the capstone project. It’s entirely possible that maybe one of those deliverables is writing a grant. It depends on where the nonprofit is in their work and what they need. But I guess I would just say, if we’re going to educate engineers to work in the nonprofit sector, they’d better know how to write grants because that’s where the money comes from.
J: I would say that our projects where we’ve had students involved haven’t required that grants be part of them. They often are just because that is our primary funding structure. But we’ve found that it’s pretty easy to involve students when it’s not grant-funded work because it doesn’t cost much to involve students. We primarily just think it’s a good practice, so we’ve worked it into a lot of our- it’s just a practice within our organization.
D: Jason, would you find it useful if the students hit the ground with that information, I guess is another way of thinking about this or with that skill set?
J: It’s an important skill set. I don’t know if grant writing is a skill set versus being able to communicate through writing and being able to write what is the need and what is the problem statement. I would say that is the skill set, but grant writing is a way to learn that skill set or improve it.
B: And I think having just access to the data or being able to provide that data in a way that helps explain the magnitude of the problem or the impact the problem is having or the potential benefits of a solution, whether it’s been tested or piloted out, and if you scale this up, this would be the potential outcomes, I think that’s a really helpful thing that would tie in nicely to grants.
D: I guess my one last thought is there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done here in the Twin Cities just because of all of the rioting and destruction. There was a listening session with the Dunwoody College President for all of the faculty to talk to each other about where we were at. As faculty, engineering faculty, capstone faculty, challenge your student or your school leadership to find these opportunities for you. I said something similar to our President in the listening session. But if you look at President, Provost, Board of Trustees, these are all very high-ranking individuals in the community and they will have the connections that we need to find these types of efforts. That would be one thing that I guess I would advise faculty to think about. That’s where I’ll leave it.
B: Excellent. I think that’s a good point. Jason, anything else you wanted to share?
J: No, I don’t think so. I think we covered a lot of the topics and projects and the way students have been involved in all of our work.
B: Great job, Jason. Keep up the good work and look forward to some other projects. Maybe we’ll do this again in a year or so and see what new projects you’ve got dealing with the effects of COVID and how things had to be adjusted and changed. This was great. Thanks, everybody, for participating and sharing.
D: Yeah, let’s check-in again because, for any of our institutions, this is really a distinguishing thing to be doing work of this nature. I would say let’s touch base again on this.
B: Okay. Dave, Anuj, Jason, thank you so much.
A: Thank you so much.
B: Thanks, everybody.