Clearing up Muddy Water with Mathcad at Cornell University

As a mathematics educator one of the things that I value most about Mathcad is its ability to help out when I (or my students) encounter “muddy water”. When faced with a challenging problem or a complicated function, Mathcad’s graphing capabilities and live mathematics make the exploratory work necessary to find clear water much easier. This past week I discovered a new way that Mathcad helps out with the problem of muddy water.

Cornell Engineering Students Making a Difference in the World

At Cornell University the AguaClara research group devotes its time, energy, and engineering skill to the problem of providing clean drinking water for resource poor communities in the Global South. Under the direction of Monroe Weber-Shirk, a member of the Civil Engineering faculty at Cornell, this student led group conducts research on the design of low-cost, zero electricity water treatment plants that provide clean and affordable drinking water.

Mathcad Solves Engineering Design Problems

According to Weber-Shirk, AguaClara’s water treatment plants cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of the cost of existing commercial designs. Moreover, the plants use no electricity, a fact which keeps costs down and benefits the environment. One of the keys to AguaClara’s success is the skillful use of computing technology to reduce the costs of designing the plant. The design team deploys Labview, Mathcad, Autocad, and Word to automate the design and delivery of site-specific plans for water treatment plants based on requests by partners who construct the plants. Currently 5 AguaClara plants are providing safe drinking water to 15,000 people in Honduras and many more plants are in the design stages.

A student run project, one of the interesting aspects of AguaClara is the way that it sustains its design process semester after semester as students leave or join the project. Mathcad is used for data analysis and modeling with extensive use of its text and units capabilities to document the intellectual property acquired over the life of the project. In addition, during the design process Mathcad’s powerful engineering capabilities are put to use by the AguaClara students to develop both an Autocad script that produces the plans for the plant and a report in Word that describes the materials and procedures necessary to construct the plant. Labview’s visual programming language is employed to integrate Mathcad, Autocad, and Word using ActiveX. Labview then emails the resulting files to the engineer who requested the design.

Plugging away

According to Karen Swetland, a Ph. D. student working for AguaClara, Mathcad’s ease of use is critical to the project because it allows new members of the design team to roll up their sleeves and join in where others have left off. For AguaClara’s engineers the ability to model, simulate, and script without having to learn a programming language is mission critical. It enables them to produce highly effective, low cost designs that meet their client’s needs.  Everyone at PTC is proud to see Mathcad’s capabilities put to such good use by the Cornell students who work on the AguaClara Project.

A Model Program in Engineering Education

In pursuing its special mission of providing clean, low cost drinking water with little environmental impact, AguaClara gives undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell the opportunity to use engineering knowledge to solve real world problems. In doing so it provides an interesting model for engineering education. By carefully choosing computational tools with a low barrier to entry, Weber-Shirk created an environment where students solve real engineering problems while learning to use powerful computational tools. The job is important, the beneficiaries are real, and the problems are complex. And, semester upon semester students gain real world experience that teaches them about the ways that engineers interact with and impact the world around them.

Clean water for all

Kudos to the AguaClara Project for a job well begun! As they pursue their next challenge of designing an innovative low-cost, low-impact filtering system, we wish them great success!

If you would like to learn more about the AguaClara Project or support its ongoing efforts to improve the delivery of clean drinking water to the developing world visit

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