A group of Iowa State University students are using calculus to lower a building’s energy bill.
They aren’t looking for problems with the utility company’s math. Instead, they’re looking for problems with the building’s infrastructure, energy use, runoff, and weatherization. These students, involved with ISU’s STEM Neighborhood Project, use calculus and science to help the Capitol East neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, address problems such as energy inefficiencies in residential and public buildings.
“This project has an immediate impact on society,” said Cinzia Cervato, Morrill Professor of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences and a STEM Neighborhood instructor. “It gives students a chance to use what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to real-world problems.”
The STEM Neighborhood Project, part of the Freshman Research Initiative, started in 2014 after ISU faculty met with community planning members from the Capitol East neighborhood, a diverse neighborhood full of young families. The planning members identified energy efficiency as a crucial issue for the neighborhood, and asked ISU faculty how they could make area buildings more efficient. Three buildings – a church, an elementary school, and an apartment building – were identified as having high energy bills.
“We looked at how we could apply calculus to these various problems,” Cervato said. “Students went to the Capitol East neighborhood to collect data on energy loss and other variables that could contribute to energy inefficiencies, such as tree coverage and which direction the buildings faced.”
Students in the STEM Neighborhood Project are freshman that are majoring in science, technology, engineering or math, and are involved in a STEM-based learning community (a small group of like-minded freshman students who take classes together). They take Calculus I (a team-based learning class) during the fall semester, and then work on the STEM Neighborhood Project for course credit during the spring semester.
“The community planners continue to give us great feedback on the work our students have done for them,” Cervato said. “And in addition, our students love the work they do. They enjoy meeting students from other majors, since the program integrates several majors such as geology, meteorology, physics, and engineering.”
The semester-long project wraps up with a poster session to share data and results. This spring, six posters, each created by three to four ISU students, were presented to community planners and families from the Capitol East neighborhood. Community planners will use the information to make data-driven decisions to improve their neighborhood’s infrastructure.