Interning at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission
I spent two summers interning at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC), one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the United States. On the job, I gained a great number of technical engineering skills as well as general knowledge about how an engineering office functions. I was able to explore many different branches of engineering during my time at PVSC, and I worked under a professional structural engineer; sitting in on meetings, talking to contractors, and observing projects on and off site. Key to my development was the time I spent working with computer aided design (CAD) draftsmen and geographic information systems (GIS) coordinators, who taught me how to use CAD and GIS to tackle real world problems.
As an engineer, I was able to apply what I learned in school to analyze load-bearing diagrams of crane lifts and other projects at the plant. PVSC is also actively working on many large scale projects around the site, specifically a floodwall and a new drainage system in order to prevent flooding in the event of a 500-year storm. I was lucky to come to PVSC at such an active time, as I got to see a lot of the early stages of how contractors planned to handle these issues.
Returning to work at PVSC for a second summer allowed me to build on previous experiences and relationships and assume a greater responsibility as an intern. I had earned a level of trust in my capabilities, which allowed me to undertake greater challenges with less supervision. It was rewarding for me to revisit projects I had been working on the previous summer to see how the projects were progressing or completed.
To learn more about PVSC you can visit their website here.
Artifact: Modifying the Dock’s Receiving Station
PVSC’s 800-foot dock allows barges to unload sludge and liquid waste into the decontamination system. One of these barges comes once a week from Virginia to unload several millions of gallons of leachate (liquid runoff from landfills). In my first summer with PVSC, I helped locate the position of the receiving nozzle using surveying and GIS equipment. In my second summer, this nozzle, along with a housing platform that surrounded it, was fully constructed.
Image of the Receiving Platform
Unfortunately, soon after this nozzle and platform were completed, the Virginia company decided to use a larger barge, which was unable to attach to the existing nozzle while remaining within the confines of PVSC’s property line. To solve this dilemma, the shipping company requested a 100-foot hose be attached to the nozzle, and working under the supervision of a professional structural engineer, I was tasked with meeting this request.
I first measured the dimensions of the hose along with the existing nozzle and platform, and then drafted a solution with my supervisor. Using AutoCAD, I was able to create a drawing of the existing conditions along with the proposed modifications. The plan was to cut off sections of the handrail and insert support structures to guide the hose to its desired location. By the end of the process, I’d created official drawings that would be used by welders and other contractors to install a new setup. It is exciting to know that I’ve made contributions to the company that will solve real problems.
Dock Modification: Drawn to scale for 22”X34” Paper (Click here for full version)
After two summers working with a wide array of professionals, I gained key insights into the worlds of engineering, innovation, entrepreneurship and beyond. Here I will briefly discuss some of my most important takeaways.
The world we don’t see: proper engineering makes the world work like magic. Devices are made as simple as possible for users. You flick a switch and the lights turn on, you spit in a sink and the toothpaste disappears. My experience has made me not take these luxuries for granted, and to wonder what goes behind the world we see. Most technology is hidden from human eyes. It is in the walls, the ceiling, and at PVSC most of it is underground. My internship has allowed me to see many of these hidden technologies, and to understand what is behind the magic. I have a new appreciation for the world, and I recognize that much more is going on than what I am able to see. When flicking a switch or watching the water go down a sink I now imagine the complex networks and systems hidden from the eye.
Ethics and engineering: I used to think that engineering was a very black and white industry where there was a right answer and no place for emotion or morality. After two years at PVSC, I now know there are many solutions to the same problem and ethics often plays an integral role. One of my supervisors knows that she will be retiring within the next two years and is very deliberate about looking for long-term solutions rather than quick fixes even though it won’t affect her directly. Rather than favoring cheaper material cost, she buys more expensive materials that will not weather and will require less maintenance. She carefully documents the locations of new conduits that she lays in the ground so future engineers know where not to dig. She also spent considerable time adjusting the location of a new motor so that it would be more accessible for a maintenance crew to repair in the future. All of these approaches require significantly more effort and cost, but paying it forward is the hard but right thing to do.
Engineering beyond formulas: school teaches students how to utilize equations and power through calculations. At times my engineering classes make me worried that all professional engineers do is solve integrals. At PVSC I got to see that engineering is a lot more of a personal/human endeavor than school makes it out to be. A lot of the job is coordinating efforts with other engineers and negotiating solutions with a contractor. Yes, there comes a time when a structural engineer must perform load-bearing calculations, but they calculations are a means more than they are an end.
Always ask questions: as an undergraduate, it can be intimidating to work with experts who have decades of professional experience. At PVSC I was surrounded by more professional engineers than I was able to meet, and I was worried that I wasn’t expereinced enough to be around them. In my first summer at PVSC I learned that these experts were willing and excited to help me as long as I asked. Not asking questions in an attempt to appear smarter than you are quickly catches up to you. Admitting what I did not know and not worrying about asking “stupid” questions made be a more productive worker. In addition to producing better work, I found that the more questions I asked, the more I was able to learn.