August 16, 2007

NSF Awards $635,000 Grant for Collaborative Environmental Policy Research

Professors Chris Ruebeck, Sharon Jones and Jeff Pfaffmann create interdisciplinary experience for students

People might have environmental concerns when seeing the emissions from a car, but that is not the only way that a car can affect the environment. During every stage of its life from when the materials are extracted to when the car is disposed of, it has an effect on the world around it, says Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil & environmental engineering.

Jones, Chris Ruebeck, assistant professor of economics & business, and Jeff Pfaffmann, assistant professor of computer science, are using an interdisciplinary approach to see how policies affect the life cycles of products.

The professors were recently awarded a $635,000 grant 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 three year grant beginning Sept. 1 will allow the professors and students to study models based on strategic planning and game theory techniques in hopes of determining how the decisions of policy-makers interact and affect the life-cycle of products.

  • Interdisciplinary Research Project Featured by National Science Foundation

The project is based on ongoing work between Ruebeck and Jones since 2003. They have developed a decision-making model that combines economic incentives with environmental data. The project made possible by the grant will improve the versatility of the model by incorporating agent-based modeling to study the environmental and economic implications of diverse markets.

Because of the grant, they will also be able to use computer simulation methods to improve their models and test numerous case studies because of the purchase of advanced computing equipment. It is because of this involvement of computers that Pfaffmann joins the team.

The study will particularly look at the life cycles of cell phone batteries and water systems. It will also continue to look at its current research with shipping pallets.

In the past, Ruebeck and Jones have worked with students one-at-a-time to perform the initial investigations. The grant will now allow them to involve more students.

Several students have made significant contributions to the early stages of the research project. A.B. engineering graduate Nathan DeLong ’04 did a case study using the College bookstore and a limited set of existing life cycle analyses. A.B. engineering and international affairs graduate Kristin Tull ’06 added to DeLong’s information so that a range of parameters in existing life cycle analyses of shipping pallets could be better understood. Her work with Ruebeck and Jones has been published in an academic journal.

Economics & business graduate Brian Laverty ’07 worked with the Geographic Information System software to improve understanding of regional effects in the intermediate and final disposition of shipping pallets. Aung Lin ’10 (Geneva, Switzerland), who is pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an A.B. with a major in economics & business, has researched existing life cycle analyses of cell phones. Work by Laverty and Lin will soon be submitted for publication as well.

With the grant, they will be able to have six students each year work together on the project on an interdisciplinary team. Two engineering students, two computer science students, and two economics & business students will work to explore the topic while also learning about the other students’ areas of study through mini-courses.

Ruebeck described the learning experiences for students, saying, “All three groups will share their information and so learn about each other’s area of expertise as well. In fact, the engineering and economics students will be required to take a programming class to familiarize themselves with the various ways in which computers can leverage their knowledge without actually majoring in computer science.”

The grant will also provide the funds to bring two to four speakers to campus each year to discuss a topic related to the subject being studied. These lectures would be open to the public.

“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.

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