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Professors Chris Ruebeck, Sharon Jones, Jeff Pfaffmann, and Kristen Sanford-Bernhardt create an interdisciplinary experience for students

By Elizabeth Kemmerer

A group of professors and students from economics and business, computer science, and engineering is using an interdisciplinary approach to see how environmental policy-making is affected by the life cycles of products.

According to Sharon Jones, professor of civil and environmental engineering, during every stage of a product’s life, from when the materials are extracted to when the product is disposed of, it has an effect on the world around it. The research deals specifically with the life cycles of shipping pallets, cell phone batteries, and water systems.

The project is being led by Jones; Chris Ruebeck, associate professor of economics and business; Jeff Pfaffmann, assistant professor of computer science; and Kristen Sanford-Bernhardt, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“The goal is to develop a richer understanding of the interaction between producers, consumers, and the materials they use to deliver and benefit from goods and services. There is no innate value in shipping pallets, cell phone batteries, or water pipes—other than the goods and services they allow producers to provide for consumers. The demand for these goods is derived from the goods and services they allow buyers to enjoy. But the manner in which producers and consumers use these derived demand goods can have important environmental consequences,” says Ruebeck.

The professors were awarded a three-year, $635,000 grant in Sept. 2007 from the National Science Foundation to form an interdisciplinary team to integrate agent-based modeling and life-cycle analyses to enhance environmental policy-making.

The project is based on ongoing work between Ruebeck and Jones begun in 2003. They developed a decision-making model that combines economic incentives with environmental data. The project uses computer simulation methods to improve the model and test numerous case studies. This is made possible through the purchase of advanced parallel-processing computing equipment.

“Our project combines the social sciences, in particular economics, and engineering with the tools of computer science,” explains Ruebeck. “Not only is the group interdisciplinary, but the individuals’ expertise crosses boundaries as well. The innovative contribution of our project is to think about markets and environmental policy. Little existing work has melded these disciplines.”

Several students participated in the project this past summer. They are Abseen Anya `11 (Dhaka, Bangladesh), who is majoring in engineering studies; Chinh Do ’10 (Hanoi, Vietnam), who is majoring in economics and business; Anthony Finizio ’10 (Pittsburgh, Pa.), who is majoring in economics and business; Jonathan Jenkins ’10 (Bellbrook, Ohio), who is majoring in computer science; Adam Lessen ’10 (Dresher, Pa.), who is majoring in engineering studies and philosophy; Brian Warner ’10 (Bellport, N.Y.), who is majoring in electrical and computer engineering; and Aung Lin ’10 (Geneva, Switzerland), who is pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an A.B. with a major in economics & business.

Also, several students have made significant contributions to the early stages of the project, including Nathan DeLong ’04, Kristin Tull ’06, and Brian Laverty ’07. Tull’s work with Ruebeck and Jones will be published in an academic journal.

Students assisted with gathering life cycle analysis studies for shipping pallets, cell phones and, water delivery systems. Using computational techniques, the students helped build models of industrial markets and engineering systems. The team will install a 28-node computer cluster to process the simulation models they are designing to understand the shipping pallet market. The models will then be modified to consider the cell phone and water delivery markets.

This project is a manifestation of two campus-wide initiatives at Lafayette: one for sustainability and another for spreading computational methods beyond the computer science department.

“Students are learning about the interconnected nature of industry and the environment,” Ruebeck says. “A focus on sustainability must recognize the system-level implications of environmental and industrial policy. Our work has applications to the emerging field of industrial ecology, which focuses on the holistic study of environmental and industrial systems.”

  • NSF Awards $635,000 Grant for Collaborative Environmental Policy Research
  • Economics and Business
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Exceptional Faculty
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