Master of Environmental Studies students discover the power of poop

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September 6, 2016

A lot of great ideas start with a light bulb. In the case of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (PVWDC), it started with the need for one. The organization trains dozens of the highest-pedigree working dogs in the country—ranging from patrol dogs to ovarian cancer detection dogs. In order to keep up with their physically demanding duties, these canines need to run through simulations on a daily basis. When the PVWDC had to find a way to light its outdoor training space, they turned to the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) department to help them turn poop into power.

“We call it the Poop Light Project,” laughs Vicki Berkowitz, the Associate Director of the PVWDC. Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s Executive Vice President (and working dog foster) once joked to Vicki and Dr. Cindy Otto, PVWDC’s Executive Director that they would be sitting on top of a fundraising fortune if they could figure out how to turn all of that dog poop into profit. That conversation eventually led Cindy and Vicki to develop the study for the Poop Light Project.

The outdoor agility course at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center is housed on a concrete lot in Grays Ferry, right on the grounds of the new Pennovation Center. Due to building restrictions, no electricity or water can be run to the course. To tackle the issue, they need a generator. And it just so happens that you can indeed run a generator on number two. Thankfully for Cindy and Vicki, there is no lack of that at their facility.

When it came to the hard science of the proposal—figuring out the amount of waste needed to decompose into the methane gas that powers a light strong enough for their space—they turned to MES Director Yvette Bordeaux, Administrative Director Sally Cardy and their students. “It has been a fun, practical project. We often talk about things in theory,’Wouldn’t it be great to turn dog poo into power?’” smiles Yvette, “But our students got down to the nitty gritty of everything. They thought about union contracts and building materials. One of our students is writing a proposal to Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services for a Green Fund to get this up on its feet.”

Though collecting and measuring dog poop for two weeks doesn’t sound like the most glamorous job, the benefits outweigh the smell tenfold. The Penn Vet Working Dog Center is the first of its kind in the country. Cindy founded the organization after being deployed with working dogs to Ground Zero for 9-11. She discovered a need to study the best practices for training and raising working dogs, from their fitness and diet to their genetics and behavior.

Master of Environmental Studies students discover the power of poop

“We started with seven dogs and one trainer. Since then, we graduated more than 50 dogs, and we currently have 21 dogs at the center,” beams Vicki. “In 2012 the TSA lost their funding for their breeding program after 9-11. They had 10 years worth of research data. We were awarded the TSA breeding program, all of their data and their dogs. We’ve kept their program going and then some.” Today, all of the dogs raised and trained at the PVWDC are named after 9-11 search and rescue dogs, first responders and victims.

Innovations like the waste digester help keep the center moving forward with its important work. Along with the environmental benefits of powering a light by methane and reducing landfill waste, the Poop Light Project also removes a financial burden from the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Though they are supported by Penn, the organization is a non-profit that is funded by donations and grants and depends on a large team of dedicated volunteers.

What started as a seemingly messy ordeal has turned into a very promising solution for the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and an exciting opportunity for the MES program. According to Vicki, “Without having MES, who understands feasibility and environmental impact, we couldn’t have done this project.” Yvette shared proudly, “We train our students to be professionals, so this was a great project to take theory and put it into practice.”

You can see just how special the Penn Vet Working Dog Center is on a bi-monthly public tour. If you are interested in donating, volunteering or fostering a working dog, please visit the PVWDC website.

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