Wider Horizons

Lethbridge College researcher John Derksen and his students are studying an environmentally friendly, environmentally friendly, modular culvert system modular culvert system suitable for use in parks, trails and ecologically sensitive areas. Results of their study so far show that the system, which was designed by Environmental Sciences instructor Ron Hammerstedt, can be installed with minimal impact to the natural environment and to local species and habitat.

“This project will provide significant benefits beyond the study itself,” says Gina Funicelli, dean of the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation at the college. “It offers experiential learning environments for students, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly walking paths for the Lethbridge community and economic opportunity for industry.”

Hammerstedt, who has a background in biology and forestry, devised the system to fill the need for an alternative to traditional steel arch culverts. The product, developed through his company, Enviro-Span, is made of a strong and flexible plastic that is more durable and longer lasting than steel.

Hammerstedt and Derksen are collaborating on the project with the City of Lethbridge. Last year, working with ParksManager Dave Ellis, they coordinated the installation of an Enviro-Span culvert across a creek in the Six-Mile Coulee area, along the southwestern edge of the city.

“We looked at the spot where they wanted to put in a new crossing, and it was about the right width for our culvert to accommodate it,” says Hammerstedt. Prior to installation of Enviro-Span, there were only some makeshift, substandard crossings put together by trail users. Construction of proper bridges in the area would have been very expensive.

“We know people use it,” says Ellis, “but it’s a very narrow segment of the population. It’s important to us to open that up and let the general public have access. In order to do that, it needs to be safe and accessible. Our goals are cost avoidance and opening up the area to the public. This is a future benefit for a small investment.”

The Enviro-Span installation has been praised by Bill Halley, Technology Development Advisor for Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures. “The City of Lethbridge has shown it can embrace innovative ways to solve practical problems,” Halley says. “The support of innovation, grounded in a strong collaborative regional network is, I believe, a model for other regions.”

Derksen and Hammerstedt are exploring additional applications and installation possibilities for Enviro-Span, and they hope their efforts demonstrate to industry and investors, through research, its value as an earth-friendly system.

“The Enviro-Span project typifies a level of cooperation we have become accustomed to in Lethbridge,” adds Halley. “There is no doubt in my mind that support for entrepreneurism is growing stronger in southern Alberta. This is evident in the changing culture towards innovation and the emphasis on applied research so ably supported by Lethbridge College.”

Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation facilitated the collaboration and obtained funding for the project through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Assistance Program grant totalling approximately $30,000. With partner contributions – both cash and in-kind - the total project is valued at around $200,000.

Dr. Michael Long, Director of Applied Research at Lethbridge College, is excited about the successful commercialization of a product developed by a faculty member and studied by an on-campus researcher. So far, the research is encouraging.

“Our research to date confirms that the installation of the crossing has had negligible impact on suspended solids, the main monitoring parameter for crossing installations,” says Derksen, “and it appears not to have any impact on fish movement in the stream after installation.”

Another area of impact related to the project is student learning. Derksen and Hammerstedt both teach Environmental Sciences students and say they can benefit by taking knowledge of the new technology into the workplace. This real-world application of learning is also appealing to future students.

“You attract students to colleges and universities that have unique programs or that do unique things, or are known for doing a little bit more,” says Hammerstedt.

College students also have the opportunity to conduct applied research, utilizing technologies like Enviro-Span.

“The beautiful thing with applied research projects is that students develop unique skill sets they might not get in the classroom,” says Long. “This is appealing to prospective employers.

When students go into the field, they may have awareness of a product they can find potential application for. It’s good for business, good for the environment and good for the community.”

Long points to benefits like applied research and the introduction of new technologies as important factors in the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprise.

“Part of the mission of a community college is to provide a trained labour force for large corporations, but there is a greater focus on small- and medium-sized enterprise development,” Long adds.

Enviro-Span is manufactured in the United States and licensed to Canadian distributors. Currently, there are between 50 and 100 people in Canada engaged in distribution of the product, and numbers are expected to increase significantly in the near future. In addition to existing industry opportunities in southern Alberta, Hammerstedt and Enviro-Span are getting interest from businesses and organizations throughout Alberta and Canada, as well as in the U.S. and abroad. Hammerstedt believes there are potential applications for provincial and national parks, and for the protection of wetlands.

Across campus, collaborative projects like this draw praise for providing value to students, professionals and the community.

“There’s an impact at the local, regional, provincial and federal levels,” says Long. “The message to investors is, ‘This is the success that has come from the money you’ve invested in us.’ We want funders to recognize and to come to us for the quality of work we can do for them We want students to see what extras they get from the college, and we want faculty and employees to be proud of work that’s done here.”

Wider Horizons
Zyna Taylor
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