Kettering University student creates sustainable greenhouse on reservation in South Dakota

Kettering University engineering students are problem solvers and innovative thinkers. Noah Lukins ‘19 took that notion one step further for his thesis project.

Lukins and his thesis advisor Dr. Laura Sullivan, designed, developed, and installed a photovoltaic system that would power both a rain harvesting/water pumping system and ventilation system for use in a greenhouse on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The greenhouse is located at the Singing Horse Trading Post on the reservation, so access to a properly working greenhouse would benefit the community.  

Noah Lukins '19 stands next to Rosie in front of the greenhouse on the reservation
Noah Lukins '19 stands next to Rosie in front of the
greenhouse on the reservation

“The trading post is a unique cultural melting pot where all these individuals come together. Rosie, the owner, will be able to grow her own vegetables for herself and others in the community. It will also serve as an educational tool for the community,” said Lukins, a Mechanical Engineering major at Kettering. “It was an absolutely phenomenal experience. At what other school would you get the chance to work on something like this from the beginning to end? From the very first stages of design and even before that I was thinking about what we could do that is meaningful and beneficial to all parties involved.” 

Lukins, president of Kettering’s Student Association for Global Engineering (SAGE), had the opportunity to volunteer at Pine Ridge Reservation during two prior SAGE trips before starting his thesis. It was those experiences that created a bond with the people on the reservation. There are about 15,000 people living on the reservation, and it’s the second poorest county in the county, Lukins said.

When Lukins and Sullivan, Mechanical Engineering faculty member at Kettering and faculty advisor of SAGE, started brainstorming, they wanted to impact the reservation in a practical way. The greenhouse wasn’t working well as it would often get to 115 degrees or hotter during the high heat of the day. Part of the project was to bring in a fan that would properly cool the building using solar power.

The project not only brought positive change to the community, but it will also further expand educational opportunities for community members to learn about solar energy. Sullivan has worked with students and local non-profits for several years to increase community understanding of the fundamentals of solar energy and how it could be used.

The actual construction of the photovoltaic system that incorporated three solar panels, rain gutters, two water storage tanks, and a solar-powered water pump, took two weeks. Lukins and Sullivan worked to make all systems interact with each other, including a gutter system that fed a rain barrel, from which water was pumped into a water tower. The elevated water tower then provided gravity for moving water into the greenhouse to irrigate the produce.

“Getting all the systems to interact with each other and accomplish a task when they weren’t necessarily designed to do so was the hardest part, but it was worth it to see everything come together,” Lukins said. “Being able to go from beginning to end with my design and the help of Dr. Sullivan to create this thing that I think will positively impact an underserved community in the United States, was astounding.

“Serving and service is the absolute win-win. You leave behind something that makes a difference. You walk away with a sense of fulfillment that you can’t get from anything else. This is something I will carry with me through my entire life.”

Lukins' project was a unique thesis project, researched and completed outside of his co-op experience. The sustainable greenhouse and the project overall was made possible thanks to supporters. 

"To all who supported me in this project, I want to genuinely thank you. In any underserved community the ultimate gift one can give is hope," said Lukins, especially thanking Harris Ng '95 for his support. "Beyond the nutritional benefits of fresh produce, the educational opportunities with solar technology, and the extended growing season, this relatively small project gave inspired hope. Through your contribution, an entire community of people has the opportunity to smile, to be excited, to look forward to the good things that will grow in the greenhouse, and that is hope."

Purposeful Thesis Project

Sullivan first visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2013. She had experience with Engineers Without Borders and working in underserved countries to bring clean water.

Much of the land in the area was infertile. The people were living without running water and electricity.

“It was one of those slap in the face sort of experiences. I couldn’t believe this still existed,” Sullivan said. “This is a unique thesis project. Lukins wasn’t looking at some current product or some current technology and finding out how to make it better. He was looking at a community with no technology and learning to create something that they could afford and replace it and make it work for them.” Noah Lukins works on the greenhouse on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota

Through her experiences helping underserved communities, Sullivan knows the importance of having the community take ownership over the project. The engineers or volunteers are only there to assist, but they must make themselves less valuable over time so the community can be self-sufficient.

“I haven’t had to convince young people this is a good thing to do. But it does take somebody willing to have a less defined thesis project, not knowing where it will lead. And not doing it for a promotion, but to simply to do something good,” Sullivan said. “Noah did great. He was part of SAGE team that that represented Kettering on the reservation for the second trip. He was part of a team building bunk beds for kids. He was amazed that he could do something for the kids that never had a bed before. He was so moved by the fact that there was so much joy over having a bed, I knew he would be good for a more indepth thesis opportunity.

“It’s important to let your feelings motivate you for what you might want to do. Noah is adventurous. He sees potential and he jumps. It’s not about being intimidated or saddened by the grief that’s all around. It’s thinking, ‘OK I’m here for a purpose, I’m here let’s give it a go.’”

Lukins’ project evolved, and he’s using some of what he learned in South Dakota at a hoop house in Flint, Michigan.

“The opportunity and what I’ve experienced through this thesis was totally unexpected. Coming in as a freshman my passion is and was automotive. Would I have ever guessed I would do solar powered irrigation in the middle of South Dakota? Absolutely not,” Lukins said. “Being able to push ideas through an organization, that’s what Kettering teaches you. Without my work experience and being able to do that through my co-op career, I wouldn’t have been able to come through with the massive task that this ended up to be. This thesis truly has been the cumulation of my education here—problem solving, thinking outside the box engagement, and sharing ideas.

“I was able to come up with a productive solution that betters the lives of others. I don't think I would have been able to do that without the work experience and the communications skills I have learned at Kettering on how to talk to all the parties involved and share my ideas. It’s about not just talking the talk but walking the walk and truly delivering on our word.”