Making houses energy-efficient and environmentally friendly requires striking an important balance: A green home should have good ventilation, to ensure healthy indoor air quality, but it also needs to be well-sealed to prevent wasting energy. It’s a great problem for engineering students to explore, according to Catherine Peters, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Under Peters’ guidance, 12 undergraduates are testing their ideas through Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), a yearlong course recently added to Princeton’s engineering curriculum. The students are working with a local nonprofit partner, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, to retrofit a ranch house used as the group’s education and outreach center.

“Ultimately, the goal is to demonstrate some of the types of things that homeowners can do to retrofit houses for energy efficiency,” Peters said. The EPICS course, which is equivalent to a half-credit independent study project, takes on partnerships that are designed to span several years, and students are encouraged to re-enroll.

Ed Coyle *82, this year’s Kenan Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching, launched Princeton’s EPICS course last fall. Coyle founded the program at Purdue more than a decade ago with colleague Leah Jamieson *77, and EPICS has since spread to 17 U.S. colleges. Coyle’s initial goal was to teach engineers skills that go beyond technical knowledge, such as communicating with teammates and managing projects. By working with community partners, he saw a potential win-win scenario: Community groups get valuable technical assistance; students get to work with real clients.

At many schools, Coyle said, the greatest obstacle to launching an EPICS program is finding potential partners, but at Princeton, the Community-Based Learning Initiative staff provided a long list of options. Coyle and his colleagues considered five projects before choosing two: the retrofitting project of Peters’ team; and the restoration of a century-old clock tower at a former factory in Hamilton, N.J., now owned by the Trenton-based nonprofit group Isles. Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Michael Littman, an expert on historical mechanical devices, is the adviser for the clock-tower work.

The EPICS program is designed to draw students from several majors. Peters’ group, for instance, includes concentrators from civil and environmental engineering, operations research and financial engineering, geosciences, physics, and the Woodrow Wilson School. The students work in subgroups and take on individual tasks, meeting weekly to review their progress. It has the feel of a small consulting firm, Peters said, and each student’s grade relies in part on the collective success of the team.

Team leader Brian Elbogen ’07 worked for a management-consulting firm last summer, an experience he said has parallels to EPICS. “You learn a new skill set that you don’t get in normal classroom environments,” he said.

So far, the students on the green-retrofitting team have conducted an extensive energy audit, studying the building’s ventilation rate and using a thermal infrared camera to see where it loses heat. This month, they plan to present their findings and recommendations to their community partners.

For the clock-restoration team, fieldwork has been more difficult. Water damage in the clock tower has delayed the removal of the actual clock, so the group’s five students spent much of the spring semester researching clock mechanics and building models. They shared some of what they’ve learned with local third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders in an after-school program called Princeton Young Achievers, using models built with plastic K’NEX toys.

Working with the elementary school students was a new kind of community service for Sara Oon ’10. “I’ve been giving my time, but now I’m actually giving my expertise,” she said. “It feels more meaningful and more real.”