Sustainability by the numbers

Quick, how many trips to the landfill does Penn State’s recycling program save each year? If I double the thickness of my loft insulation, how much energy will I save? How much might the melting of the polar ice caps amplify the effect of global warming?

After a semester in Professor John Roe’s Mathematics of Sustainability course, his students will know how to figure out the answers to these questions. Roe, and undergraduate research assistant Kaley Weinstein, are preparing a series of sustainability-related problems for a new general education course in mathematics. Their target audience: the student who is not going into science, mathematics or engineering.

“We need the numbers,” he said. “But, sometimes, the numbers just scare people.”

“We need to make sure we’re unafraid and that we understand the implications and the limitations of the numbers,” explained Roe.

“I’m especially interested in the notion of scale,” Roe continued. “Think about time scales, for example. What does it mean if we continue to produce greenhouse gases at the current rate for another year, 10 years, 100 years, or a 1,000 years? How do we understand the outcomes in terms of our own lifetime, of our grandchildren’s, and of the span of human civilization?”

“Think about time scales, for example. What does it mean if we continue to produce greenhouse gases at the current rate for another year, ten years, hundred years, or a thousand years? How do we understand the outcomes in terms of our own lifetime, of our grandchildren’s, and of the span of human civilization?”

-- Professor John Roe

“People also need to have an understanding of the size of different effects, like the number of curies released at Fukushima—how does that compare with normal amounts of background radiation?” he said.

“Engaged citizens need to be skilled in talking about these issues, and not just glazing over when the numbers come up.”

Weinstein agreed, “We’re coming up with skills that could help with any major data collection, the use of software applications, etc.” A junior, energy, business and finance major and a sustainability leadership minor, Weinstein has found this research to be particularly applicable to her own work. “There are lots of topics that relate to my field of study, and I know that employers are looking for graduates who understand these concepts.”

“There are lots of topics that relate to my field of study, and I know that employers are looking for graduates who understand these concepts.”

-- Kaley Weinstein, undergraduate research assistant

The new course, MATH 033, is awaiting official approval by the University.  Roe hopes to offer it for the first time in the Fall 2014 semester, and it may be used in partial completion of the Intercollege Minor in Sustainability Leadership.

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Last Updated October 15, 2013