Written by on June 20, 2017

Environmental engineering students Learn By Doing in the library’s spaces

Environmental engineering students at Cal Poly are taking their learning labs to Kennedy Library.

The goal of the class, “Noise and Vibration Control,” ENVE309,  is to familiarize students with real-world design problems. In spring quarter 2017, students worked on finding solutions to improve noise levels in the library’s student collaboration fishbowls.

ENVE309  is typically one of the first core classes for sophomore environmental engineering for students. Tracy Thatcher, the Environmental Engineering faculty member who teaches ENV309, said “They take [their experience] to a much less controlled setting where there are more variables and people. It’s good for students to say that they understand that and know what to do in real-life scenarios.”

Thatcher wanted to improve the library fishbowls because she noticed the acoustics weren’t great quality. “We did testing last year and found that noise levels inside fishbowls were louder than outside, even when no one inside the fishbowl was talking,” she said.

When a senior project secured funding to design a fishbowl soundproofing prototype, Thatcher saw the opportunity for her students to help by gathering data.


The objective of the lab was to measure the reverberation inside the fishbowl compared to the ambient noise. Students used a felt material on the fishbowl walls to see how the overall sound pressure would change with basic sound insulation.

They ran their experiment using the independent variables of ambient noise and controlled noise (from a single tone oscillator set to 1,000 hz) inside vs outside the fishbowls. Each sound condition was measured with and without felt, for a total of six data samples.

Thatcher said that working in a lab like this serves as a good vantage point for these students because it teaches them to think like an engineer.

“This (lab) shows they have to be more flexible in their thinking and make assumptions to know what’ going on and get a good answer,” she said. “It’s not a perfect answer, but they can use that to ask new questions moving forward.”

Additionally, students learned procedural skills and methods that they will apply in their future academic and professional careers.


The students concluded that the felt reduced the sound pressure levels within the fishbowls. The results indicate that felt insulation will allow speakers to be better heard by their peers within a fishbowl, but background noise of the library will still interfere with the conversation. The findings indicate that there is room for future work on improving the fishbowl acoustics.

Looking to the future, Thatcher sees soft artwork hung above the fishbowls as an option to reduce noise.

“Reverberation is part of the problem contributing to overall loudness, that’s what they’re looking at next phase,” she said.

Impact of the lab

Overall, the lab prepares students for possible scenarios and challenges that they’re likely encounter in their future careers.

“I think the hands on experience working in a real life setting in lab was the most valuable part,” Nilma Edward, Environmental Engineering junior said.

Thatcher said that common industries students enter after graduation are government, industry and consulting firms. These occupations could include positions like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluators or designers of water waste water treatment plans.

No matter the career path, Thatcher said that the skills and knowledge learned in this first lab are valuable.

“Every job you do will have noisy aspects you need to be aware of and that’s what this class is for,” she said.

Room to grow

Kennedy Library offers a variety of spaces for collaboration, personal growth and academic achievement.

By identifying the need for better soundproofing within the fishbowls, environmental engineering students showed how Kennedy library’s spaces can continue improving.

Edward said she enjoyed working in an environment which she herself uses regularly, especially because the project could potentially improve the library for future students. “We’re actually learning things that can help other people,” Edward said.

Lab work and study spaces come together in Kennedy Library when students and faculty collaborate to create practical solutions for problems in their own communities. Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto can be applied anywhere from inside a chemistry lab to outside in Poly Canyon Village. As a popular student space, the library offers a starting point for students to develop solutions to real-world problems.

Read more about the soundproofing prototype.


Megan Schellong is a fourth-year journalism major with a concentration in news and editing at Cal Poly, and works as a communications student assistant for Kennedy Library.  As both a student and a library employee, she brings a unique perspective to sharing stories with the library’s friends and neighbors. Originally from Connecticut, Megan enjoys the abundance of sun and Mexican food in California. She is on a mission to find the best place to eat tacos.

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