College-level class projects can produce some interesting products, but it's often the extra-curricular projects, those initiated by the students, that have the biggest impact. Facebook is an example of an out-of-class project that ended up making a global impact, but not all extra-curricular projects have to have the scope of Facebook to be a success. A student-led project out of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff is the perfect example of how a simple idea can have an immediate impact.

Last year, a group of NAU students decided to build a stationary bike, but not your typical stationary bike. This bike was designed to recharge small electronic devices — think cellphones and iPods — using 100 percent pedal power. This isn’t the first time a stationary bike has been used to provide electricity, but it was a first for the campus, and the project was entirely student-led.  

One of the project participants was Marilla Lamb, a 23-year-old project coordinator at Wind for Schools. Lamb graduated from NAU with an environmental engineering degree in 2012, but she was actively involved in building the Bike-Powered Charging Station.  

According to Lamb, the idea behind the project was “to design and build something which would raise awareness about energy consumption. With the charging station, users can actually feel what it’s like to produce 15 watts, or 200 watts, and they’re able to use that energy to do something useful, like charge their cellphones.”

“As an environmental engineering student, I didn’t get many hands-on assignments like this," said Lamb, describing what appealed to her the most. "For this project, I got to work in the machine shop on campus and learn to use new tools and develop new skills. Throughout the entire experience it was great to get out of my comfort zone and become familiar with topics I previously knew little about.”

Matthew Petney, a 22-year-old senior undergraduate student in the mechanical engineering program at NAU, also worked on the project. Petney explains the student and faculty response to the bike:

“After students get past the confusion of the bike not being a class project, they get pretty excited about it and the possible expansions for this type of technology. Almost immediately after wrapping their head around bicycle power, they start throwing out different ideas: bike-powered espresso machine, bike-powered blenders (which we have built). There are some more complicated ideas too, like bicycle-powered concerts or battle of the bands, where fans are able to control the volume of the band by pedaling faster or slower.”

Petney’s favorite part of the project was seeing the response from the users, “It really makes individuals stop and think for a minute about power and power consumption. It was also great to encourage students and remind them there are so many opportunities for them at NAU. If they have an idea and are motivated to carry it out, they will find faculty or staff who are willing to support them and guide them through the process.”

To help get the word out about the Bike-Powered Charging Station, both Lamb and Petney visited more than a dozen classes, including several freshman seminar courses that focused on the design process. Now word-of-mouth advertising is helping spread the news about the bike, which can be found in the main area of the NAU engineering building.

While there is only one unit right now, Petney sees the potential for more bikes in the future. “This iteration of the bicycle charging station is mostly complete. Of course, it is a student project, so if a group of students is excited about altering some of the components, then I would encourage it. We’re definitely taking all suggestions into consideration for the next version of the charging station, though.”

According to Lamb, “A team in one of the junior-level engineering design classes is designing a new charging station which will have a more interactive display. It will also produce AC electricity, so users can charge laptops and any other device which normally would plug into an outlet.”

This was not a classroom assignment nor was it a small business startup. Instead the Bike-Powered Charging Station was created by a group of students with an entrepreneurial streak who wanted to provide not only provide a valuable service to their fellow students but to also combine this service with an energy consumption educational campaign. 

Read about other innovators and ideas at The Leaderboard. If you have a story suggestion for this year-long project, please contact us.

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