Math Course on Environmental Modeling Leads to Real-World Solutions, on Campus and Beyond

Posted October 21st, 2010 at 12:58 pm.

Alyssa Martin and Sasha Bereznak present their findings in Victor Donnay's Mathematical Modeling in the Environment course

Alyssa Martin and Sasha Bereznak present their findings in Victor Donnay's Mathematical Modeling in the Environment course

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, Bryn Mawr students Katie Link ’12 and Yufang Wang ’11, along with Professor of Mathematics Victor Donnay, were officially recognized by the Haverford Township Board of Commissioners for their work in helping the municipality successfully apply for a $300,000 grant from the state of Pennsylvania to help finance the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in the township’s new community recreation and environmental education center.

“Thanks to Victor and his students’ assistance in obtaining this grant, the township will be able to reduce its carbon footprint; our investment will be paid off in about five years; and we will save over $2,000,000 in energy costs during the next 30 years,” says Haverford Township Assistant Manager Tim Denny, who worked with Donnay and the students on the project.

Link and Wang wrote the grant proposal as part of their summer research project applying mathematics to issues of sustainability.

This recognition is just the latest chapter in a collaboration that began last spring, when students from Donnay’s Mathematical Modeling in the Environment course joined with township officials to investigate environmentally friendly heating and cooling options for the soon-to-be built center.

The work with Haverford Township was one of three major sustainability projects students from the class took on as part of the course.

Another group of students worked with Bryn Mawr’s dining services to look for ways to save energy and resources, which led to the elimination of trays in Haffner Dining Hall, and a third group worked with the college’s chief administrative officer and facilities department to examine energy savings that could be achieved through changes to the operating hours of certain buildings on campus.

“In offering this course I tried to bring together several of my passions and interests,” says Donnay. “I’m always interested in improving my teaching and the learning experience of my students, which I thought I could do by using math to tackle some real-world problems.”

Donnay is also committed to sustainability and is a resident of Haverford Township, so having the class work with the commissioners on making the new recreation center as environmentally friendly as possible seemed like a perfect opportunity.

However, some of his students had different ideas.

“Just like I have my passions and interests, so do the students. Many of them already had ideas for projects that I hadn’t even considered,” says Donnay. “Rather than try to force everyone to work on the same thing, we decided to modify the class and take on these multiple issues. The students’ enthusiasm was fantastic, and the overall level of engagement was even greater than usual.”

“Being able to choose a topic and design my own project brought real-world relevancy to the class and kept me engaged in the work,” says Eva Herzog ’10, who has become a high-school math teacher since graduating from Bryn Mawr. “I’m looking forward to letting my students work on some real-world projects to further their understanding of the material we’re learning.”

Here’s a brief look at the class’s projects along with the names of the students who participated in each and a downloadable PDF file of each report.

The Haverford Township Project (Bethany Giblin 10, Teresa Palasits 10, Jenny Sichel 10, and Amy Veprauskas 10)

The Haverford Township ProjectThe Haverford Township Report

Haverford Township was considering three options for the heating and cooling of its new recreation center. While the geothermal option was the most efficient, it was also the most costly in terms of up-front installation costs.

Since the costs of the systems had already been figured out, the students focused on reaching a more precise estimate of the environmental impact of each system, given the township’s goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2020.

In a detailed 28-page report, the students showed that the township would produce 5.5 times the amount of CO₂ in operating the recreation center if they choose to go with a traditional heating and cooling system instead of the geothermal system.

The students presented their findings to the township in May.

Thanks in part to the report, the township voted unanimously in June to go with the geothermal system.

Dining Services  (Sasha Bereznak 11 and Alyssa Martin 10)

Trayless Dining ProjectThe Trayless Dining Report

Bereznak and Martin estimated that around 2,700 trays are used in Bryn Mawr’s dining halls on a typical day and that the washing and drying of each tray costs the college six cents.

In addition to the outright savings that would be achieved by removing some or all of the trays from the dining halls, the students wanted to try to figure out how much waste would be reduced by getting rid of the trays.

In order to gauge student reactions and measure food waste savings, Berznak and Martin held two “waste weighs” in Erdman during dinners on consecutive Tuesdays.

For the first, diners were asked to scrape their food waste into a bin on a commercial scale as they dropped off their trays.

The next week, trays were removed and the waste once again weighed.

Using the results obtained from the waste weigh along with the number of students who ate in Erdman during each day for dinner, Bereznak and Martin were able to calculate the waste per student and compare the trayless versus non-trayless results.

Berznak and Martin estimated that Bryn Mawr could realize a savings of nearly $38,000 per academic year in electric, labor and other related costs simply by not washing  trays at every meal. They also found that going trayless led to a 4.5 percent reduction in the amount of food waste.

Due in part to Bereznak and Martin’s research, Haffner Dining Hall has gone trayless.

Building Management (Grace Kung ’10 and Eva Herzog ’10)

The Building Management ProjectThe Building Management Report

Kung and Herzog focused on a number of campus buildings, including Gateway, Dalton, and Cambrian Row, in which the indoor temperatures are kept within a mandated range and more than just emergency power is on at all times.

The students worked closely with Assistant Director for Energy and Project Management Jim McGaffin in gathering their data and found that by “shutting down” the buildings for portions of each night, the College could save as much as $30,000 a year and reduce its carbon footprint by nearly 63,000 pounds.

The College Sustainability Committee will be working with faculty and students to determine reasonable changes to operating hours in some of College buildings.

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