Students Use Math to Make Bryn Mawr and Surrounding Community Greener

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 5:05 pm.


Victor Donnay and students from his Senior Conference on Math Modeling and Sustainability

Bryn Mawr students, faculty members and administrators, as well as representatives from Lower Merion Township (home of the College), gathered in a Park Science building lecture hall at the end of last semester to hear presentations from senior math majors who spent the fall semester looking at the numbers behind several possible environmental initiatives.

Three groups of students from Professor Victor Donnay’s “Senior Conference on Math Modeling and Sustainability” presented the results of studies they conducted over the semester. Two focused on the College — one on the possible advantages of the college contracting to have dining hall food waste composted and the other on the environmental, economical, and human impacts of the College switching to a paperless admissions process. The third group worked with Lower Merion Township and retired transportation engineer Rich Kerr to rate the biking safety of township roads and to look for low-cost ways to make roads safer for bike riders.

The first group to present was made up of Hoang Ha, Wendy Huang, Brenda Martinez, and Hannah Weinstein. They worked with the College to examine the environmental and economic impact if the college contracted to have much of the food waste from the dining halls composted.

As a trial, the College contracted with the company Philly Compost during the fall semester. In addition to using regular trash bins, workers at Haffner and Erdman dining halls began separating out all compostable waste that was then picked up three times a week by Philly Compost.

As the group explained, while such a switch may appear to be a no-brainer from an environmental standpoint, the reality is much more complicated.

While the move to composting dramatically reduced the amount of trash being traditionally disposed of (which is incinerated and produces CO­­2) it also produced new sources of CO­­­2 emission in the form of the truck that had to come out and pick the compost material up and additional electricity used to power hot air blowers used in the composting process.

“We thought the truck emission might be offset by the fact that we were able to reduce our traditional trash pickups to three a week but those trucks were still out on the road running the rest of their routes,” pointed out Martinez during the presentation.

However, even when taking into account the emissions created by the Philly Compost truck and electricity use, the students estimated that by switching over to composting, the College was able to significantly reduce its overall CO­­2 output.

The cost for both the traditional trash pickup and composting service during the trial period was slightly higher than what the college had been paying for the traditional trash service alone. However, the student researchers estimate that if the College can cap the number of compost bins picked up each month, it will be able to save money while reducing its carbon footprint.

“The best part of this project was how important it felt,” said Weinstein during a question period after the presentation. “We all want our campus to be as green as possible and it was great to play a part in making that happen.”

Composting will continue this semester and the College is examining making the program permanent, said Associate Director of Facilities Jim McGaffin, who attended the presentation.

The second group of students to present was made up of Alisha Pradhan, Yashaswini Singh, Haverford student Sebastian Tilson, and Julia Yu. The group worked with representatives from the admissions office to examine the environmental impact of the College adopting a “paperless” admissions process.

While 99 percent of the class of 2016 submitted their admissions documents electronically, every application continues to be printed out by the admissions staff. In doing their project, the group estimated that last year the admissions office printed nearly 150,000 documents as part of the application process.

The students determined the move to a paperless system would have a significant positive environmental impact; saving the equivalent of 69 trees a year in paper. They also argued that going paperless would result in enough increased productivity and other savings to justify its costs.

“The bottom line is that a system like the ones we were looking at will allow admissions officers and our financial aid people to do an even better job of evaluating and helping prospective students. The fact that it’s good for the environment is a bonus,” said Dean of Admissions Laurie Koehler, who was working with the group and plans to move forward with adopting a paperless system.

“I don’t think there are many other colleges or universities where students have the opportunity to work on something this significant to the operation of the college,” said Singh during her group’s question period. “We never felt like what we were doing was just a class project because it wasn’t. It was something of real value and importance.”

The third group, primarily using Google Maps and Google Earth, worked with representatives from Lower Merion Township to create a map that grades many of the township roads according to their bike friendliness.

The students — Lynne Ammar, Tapashi Narine, Dorothy Shu, and Linda Yoo — looked at 31 roads, examining factors such as the existence of a shoulder, overall road width, and heavy vehicle usage.

Each road then was assigned a letter grade from A-F, with A being the safest roads for bikers. Only 11 percent received an “A” and nearly 40 percent of the roads received a “D” grade.  A respectable 42 percent received grades of “B” or “C” while eight percent received failing marks.

The good news, according to the students, is with just some low-cost changes like reducing speed limits or painting shoulders of some roads, the number of roads with passing grades could be significantly increased.

“The work you all did shows the challenges involved when you’re trying to take an auto-oriented suburb and retrofit it,” said Lower Merion Township Assistant Director of Planning Christopher Leswing, who attended the presentation along with two other township officials.

“This project and map is going to be a tremendous resource for us going forward,” added Leswing. “Now we can make the argument that not only is this something we should do but it’s something we can do.”

In introducing the presentations, Donnay talked about the fact that the seminar grew out of the College Climate Action Plan goal to expand academic links to campus sustainability efforts.

“Math is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when people start talking about sustainability,” said Donnay. “But good policy has to be backed up with accurate facts and figures. The work these students have done is a wonderful example of how we can connect what we learn in the classroom to real world issues.”

As a result of his educational work connecting math and sustainability, Donnay was appointed Chair of the Advisory Committee for Math Awareness Month 2013, the theme of which is the Mathematics of Sustainability. This event, sponsored by the four main mathematical societies in the United States, aims to increase public awareness of the important role that mathematics plays in a wide range of areas.

For more about the Bryn Mawr Climate Action Plan and other environmental sustainability initiatives, go to Environmental Sustainability at BMC.

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