Student Design Competition for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment


bullet Introduction
bullet Objectives
bullet Work Plan
bullet Results
bullet Sponsors
bullet Project Team



Engineering education has essentially ignored a major component of our nation’s environmental protection infrastructure. In the Response to Congress on the Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems (USEPA, 1997), it was noted that decentralized and individual wastewater systems serve approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population and approximately 37 percent of new development. Yet, despite the significant portion of our nation’s wastewater treatment and dispersal capacity, our engineering colleges have been slow to devote significant curriculum time to training new engineers to deal with the needs of this portion of our infrastructure, and even less time in providing hands-on activities to practice the classroom instruction.

National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities (NETCSC), and the Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment (CIDWT) have identified the need for specific training in onsite wastewater at engineering schools and have developed or are developing curriculum for both the undergraduate and practitioner audiences. Ideally, students should be given opportunities to practice their classroom instruction with virtual or actual “case studies.”

The overall goal of the Student Design Competition was to provide a forum for bringing young professionals into the field of decentralized wastewater treatment in an effort to overcome the “Lack of Knowledge and Public Misperception” barrier noted in the USEPA Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems (1997). The intent of the student design competition was to bring together students in the fields of Soils and Environmental Science, Engineering, Landscape Architecture, and Public Policy Development to form a team to solve a community decentralized wastewater treatment problem. The competition was to also involve professors from varied disciplines and to provide an opportunity for the professors to participate in the design competition (as coaches and consultants) and interact with other faculty.


The objectives of this competition were to:

  • promote multi-disciplinary teamwork within institutions;
  • enhance students’ awareness of aspects of community and small-scale wastewater treatment in a watershed context;
  • embrace engineering, soil science, hydrology, watershed science, communications, and public policy issues; and
  • stimulate innovative ideas and solutions to primary environmental concerns associated with onsite wastewater treatment and dispersal.

Work Plan Summary

The Project Team developed a process to conduct a Student Design Competition for undergraduate engineers and piloted the process twice in subsequent years using lessons-learned from the first round of competition to improve the process and design problem of the second round. The home page of the Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment provided the location for participants of the Student Design Competition to register, obtain the design problem and ancillary data and information to assemble a solution, and conduct discussions and ask questions through a forum of threaded discussions (questions could be identified by topic and responded to specifically).

The design competition was introduced in two phases. Phase 1, initiated in Spring semester 2002, developed many of the components and pilot-tested the design competition to two universities as a non-competitive prototype. Phase 2, conducted in Academic Year 2003-2004, modified the competition based on the feedback and results of Phase 1, included an invitation for all CIDWT member institutions to participate, and provided cash awards for the top three participating teams.

The two teams participating both years were brought to the annual National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) conference to orally present their design reports, as well as display their designs on a poster which were exhibited to the conference participants. For both years, separate judging panels were assembled that had a representative from each of several sectors: general public, consulting firm, US EPA, higher education, and attorney (for first year only). There were six general categories of criteria that the design reports were judged: completeness of design package, creativity of design, quality of engineering design, quality of management plan, effective use of project costs/budget, and effectiveness of presentation.


There were two primary outcomes of this project. The primary outcome is that 13 undergraduate seniors in engineering were exposed to a real-life, practical design experience, participated in a national conference, and learned more about designing decentralized wastewater treatment systems. A secondary outcome is that a design competition methodology was developed and piloted and lessons learned were obtained for future design competitions.

The entire final report is availaible on the National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project website [ >> Sponsored Projects >> Training & Education >> Student Design Competition for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment]


  • National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project
  • Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment (CIDWT)
  • National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA)
  • Water Environment Federation (WEF)

Project Team

The Student Design Competition Project Team Members were:

Material last reviewed: March 1, 2006


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