New math course will introduce students to sustainability by the numbers

Bridget Lo
November 19, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Back in 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain famously argued whether properly inflating the tires on America's roads would be enough to offset the need to reopen offshore drilling.

After a semester in John Roe’s Mathematics for Sustainability course (MATH033), students will be able to whip out their calculators, estimate the numbers and make a determination about whether properly inflating tires is beneficial or not.

MATH033 is a newly introduced course at Penn State that will be offered in spring 2015. Through this unique course, the students will be able to study sustainability from a mathematics perspective.

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

The class will carry out specific case studies and analyze sustainability issues that range from local Penn State campus waste management to global warming. Students will learn how to analyze sustainability issues by asking fundamental mathematical questions: How large? How fast? How risky? How connected?

“This class is so different than any math class I've seen,” said graduate assistant Sara Jamshidi. “It introduces ideas and concepts that few people outside of math or research get to see, and I think it does so in a very down-to-earth way.”

The aim of the course is for students to become informed citizens who are able to engage in discussions about sustainable resources, pollution, recycling, economic change and similar matters of public interest. 

“When most people think about math, sustainability isn't usually a topic that crosses their mind,” said teaching assistant Kaley Weinstein. “But almost any sustainable decision made by someone ultimately has math behind it.”

Weinstein continued, “Since sustainability can be applied to everyone's life, it is important that people know how the math behind sustainability works.”

This course fulfills a GQ (general education-quantification) credit and is intended for students who are not mathematics majors.

The course is scheduled to take place from 2:30 to 3:20 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 115 Osmond. It is limited to 40 students, so interested students are encouraged to register now.

For more information about Mathematics for Sustainability, visit To learn more about sustainability at Penn State, visit

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 19, 2014