Operation Urban Cowboy

Engineering Management

Standing, left to right: Mike Gronholm, Thor Brown, Joe DeHaan, Kyle Dinse Kneeling, left to right: Jillian Steffek, Matt Steier, Eric Wall Not pictured: Griffin Wiley

Standing, left to right: Mike Gronholm, Thor Brown, Joe DeHaan, Kyle Dinse
Kneeling, left to right: Jillian Steffek, Matt Steier, Eric Wall
Not pictured: Griffin Wiley

Compost is vital to nourishing the soil at Riverview Gardens, a 72-acre urban farm in downtown Appleton, Wis. The nonprofit’s staff often wished for a compost sifter to process organic compost on site, but they never thought it would be financially feasible.

That’s where the “Grate Eight” came in. The eight MSOE graduate students were taking a project management course at MSOE’s location in the Fox Valley, and they offered to design and build a sifter for Riverview as part of their class. The project, which the team dubbed Operation Urban Cowboy, fits well with MSOE’s Servant-Leadership principles. The grater on top of the machine inspired their Grate Eight team name.

Riverview Gardens is a financially self-sustaining social enterprise that uses urban farming to provide job training for people in need. The compost sifter is key to helping Riverview reach its goal of achieving organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — plus, it will make life easier.

“This sifter is an extravagance for us because we’re a nonprofit, and we would never be able to buy something like this,” says Kelly Nutty, director of resource management for Riverview Gardens. “We’ve been doing everything by hand, and this is going to make our operations so much more efficient. Making operations more efficient allows us to spend more time on our core mission: providing job training for our community members with significant barriers to employment.”

The students faced a formidable challenge: They had just 11 weeks to move the project from conception to completion. And although all are working engineers at Plexus or Oshkosh Corp., the students were unfamiliar with this sort of machinery. “We had to do a lot of research on previous sifters to develop our own design,” says Joe DeHaan, the team’s project manager.

The team designed its sifter to work with Riverview’s tractor and enhanced it with safety features to protect the machine and user. The final product measures 102 inches long, 61.5 inches wide and 72 inches tall, and it’s topped with a screen that allows Riverview’s staff to sift decomposed organic matter into nutrient-rich compost that can then be added back into the gardens’ soil.

With no budget, the students worked hard to fund raise. “Everything that has gone into the sifter has come from community donations,” DeHaan says. The team built the device using in-kind donations of materials from Lapham-Hickey Steel, Quality Custom Metal Fabrication, Kohler Engines, Bergstrom Automotive and Bob Wall Excavating, as well as a cash donation from Cargill.

There were a few stressful days when the team ran into delays that slowed its progress, but it ultimately succeeded in finishing the sifter before the end of the quarter. “I’m just amazed at how well it’s come together over our tight timeline,” says DeHaan, who is working on his master’s degree in engineering management. “I really enjoyed the challenge of going from nothing to a final design and then purchasing all of the materials so that by the end of the quarter, we could deliver the final product to the customer.”

Riverview’s staff is thrilled with the result.

“The MSOE group has just been amazing to work with,” Nutty says. “They’re clearly professionals in their field. We came up with the dream of the compost sifter, and we showed them a YouTube video of something similar, and they just ran with it. It’s 10 times better than what we hoped for. We’re just blown away.”

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