10 Questions with Distinguished Honors Faculty Member Conrad Tucker
Professor sees green - and gold - in sustainable design
By Noelle Mateer ’14
College Relations Intern
Over the summer, Dr. Conrad Tucker took his enthusiasm for air travel to new heights—literally. Fulfilling a childhood dream, Tucker manned a plane high above the rolling hills of Pennsylvania during his first flight lesson.
He rated the experience an "A" – as in "awesome."
As a kid, Tucker dreamed of becoming a pilot. He even memorized all the different plane models from Boeing and Airbus. But when his mom mentioned that pilots don’t get to see their families very often, he changed his mind.
"That killed my dream," he says with a laugh.
Fortunately for him, the air travel industry's loss ended up being Penn State's gain, and Tucker turned his attentions a little closer to earth. Tucker, an assistant professor of industrial engineering and engineering design in the College of Engineering, is passionate about sustainable design. That can be a heady subject, but Tucker keeps it unintimidating with YouTube videos, quirky PowerPoint slides and a sense of humor.
This fall, he'll share that enthusiasm in a seminar series on sustainable design as part of the Schreyer Honors College's Distinguished Honors Faculty Program. Earlier in the semester, he took a group of students on a tour of Penn State recycling operations. Next week, he will be leading a “trash to treasure” trip to New York City to visit the New York Studio Gallery's newest exhibit featuring art created out of used, discarded products. Read our Q&A with him below.
- So what is sustainable design, exactly?
Sustainability is a methodological approach that takes into account the impacts of human-generated artifacts on the environment—pre-use, in-use and post-use. It proposes solutions to mitigate environmental impact.
But less than 40 percent of consumer electronics are recycled. For example, I myself have all this junk that accumulates, like cell phones. You'd think that when people upgrade their cell phones, they'd trade in their old ones. But what tends to happen is people just accumulate and accumulate.
I challenge students in my undergraduate courses to design new innovative products from used ones. There are billions of electronic products disposed of every year, and my question is: Can we come up with innovative ways to integrate these into new products?
That opens the door to many exciting ideas and projects. Let's take, for example, a used memory-card reader. My students came up with the idea to use this in the design of a new sustainable electronic toothbrush. They came up with all these cool ideas to go along with it, like being able to put songs on your toothbrush, electronically measuring how long how you're brushing your teeth and creating an app to track your dental hygiene. They were so excited that they were able to create such a great, cool thing, and that goes beyond any monetary or financial benefit. They were just passionate that they were able to change something from trash into something useful.
- Does sustainable design relate to your research?
What my research aims to do is look at not only the physical design of a product, but also its usage and disposal. I focus on large-scale customer data, and my question is: How can we use that large-scale data to design more efficient products?
There's a great saying that says, “We're drowning in data but thirsting for knowledge.” I'm trying to understand and make use of the wealth of data we have out there for more sustainable design decisions.
- You're kicking off your Distinguished Honors Faculty programs this fall. What do you have planned?
Some of the questions I'm going to challenge Schreyer students to think about are: What is the practicality of sustainability on a larger scale? What are the challenges that exist? With group discussions, Schreyer honors students will have the ability to engage in these discussions on a more personal level, relating it to themselves and their careers. They will also be presented with challenging hypothetical scenarios centered around sustainability, and they will be the decision makers responsible for policy design and implementation.
We have already gone on a tour of Penn State's recycling facilities. Students got to see the sequences of steps it takes to get to the landfill when they throw their stuff away at the dorms. We also saw the Lion Surplus salvage warehouse here at Penn State, which resells electronics such as printers and computers. There are all these resources here on campus, and I want to expose students to these different opportunities here in our backyard.
- You also plan on bringing in guest speakers. Who would these speakers be?
We're going to try to make visits to representatives in Washington, D.C., and maybe even bring a member of government who's focused on sustainability here to give a talk. That way, students can actually see how policies are made, understand what's driving sustainable decisions in our nation and become more inspired. This goes back to creating a personal connection with this problem—students actually do have the ability to meet with representatives and be a part of this process.
- What can non-engineering students get out of your series?
The goal of this is to have students from diverse educational backgrounds come together and learn from one another. Everyone has their own perspective on sustainability, and everyone's opinion is driven by different factors. Some of the most creative ideas have originated from non-engineering students. Engineers don't have all the answers—in fact, we're constrained by a particular way of thinking. At the end of the day, there are all sorts of different approaches that can prevent things from ending up in a landfill.
- Have you worked with Schreyer Scholars before?
My first semester I had the privilege of working with a great honors student who's moved on to a master's program now. He was working on exoskeleton designs—a synthesis between man and machine—that enhance the physical capabilities of human beings and help people who are physically challenged. They impact many facets of daily life, ranging from increased mobility for physically challenged individuals, to enhancing the capabilities of workers in a manufacturing setting. That's what his honors thesis was in, and working with him was very rewarding.
- Going green is a huge topic in the news right now. How do you feel about the way sustainability is being portrayed?
There's not a consensus on what sustainability is—it's more like a buzzword. This is one of the things we're going to discuss: What are the current perceptions, based on the media, of what sustainability is? From there, we can move beyond these different distortions and come up with a new terminology to describe what we're doing. We're going to try to come up with a new word, because like the word "green," it isn't being used in a clear, consistent manner.
- If you could only take one sustainably designed product with you to a deserted island, what would it be?
I would take a solar-powered communication device so I could stay up to date with my Facebook and Twitter and hopefully tweet to someone “Get me the heck out of here!”
- Where on campus can students go to recycle their consumer electronics?
Penn State has Lion Surplus, which runs the salvage warehouse. They are awesome at collecting computers, laptops parts, furniture and more. And every year, they sell these end-of-life products to the community. It's a big event, usually in the spring, and people who go there often find great deals. You should check it out!
- How do you hope your programs will impact the Schreyer Scholars who participate?
At the end of this program, I hope that students don't just see this as a project. I hope that they're inspired to take the knowledge they've learned to pursue their own inquiries. It's one thing to teach somebody, but it's another thing to inspire somebody—and at the end of the day, that's what I want to do.