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House Sustainability Challenge 2018

29 May

The House Sustainability Challenge culminated its first chapter with a final winner: the Drying Racks team (Yolanda Chigiji ’21, Julianne Borger ’21, Emma Krasky ’21, Sadie Wiese ’21, April Hopcroft ’21 and Sophie Guthrie ’21). Congratulations! This group presented a practical alternative to drying machines and made it available to everyone in their house (Morrow-Capen) on a trial basis. Here’s how it went- they displayed several prototypes made out of inexpensive, recycled materials, such as bamboo, to their house community and encouraged their creation through small workshops. As a back-up, in case a DIY drying rack was not within the skillset or comfort zone of students, they made sure to have some standard designs on each floor of the house. These racks were managed with a sign-out system so residents on each floor are aware of who was using which drying rack at any given time. In case of a lost or damaged frame, the person, whose details was on the sign-up sheet, was contacted and the situation was assessed. Through the use of portable racks, the students were able to reduce the number of dryers in use over their trial period by almost 200 cycles in both houses.

The House Sustainability Challenge, sponsored by Smith’s Conway Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Residential Life, CEEDS, the Office of Campus Sustainability, and The Design Thinking Initiative, held its final challenge on April 20th, allowing each group to present their proposals and pilot programs to the judges. The winning team was awarded $1,000 while the remaining finalists received $250 for their respective houses. The winning team’s design for a campus-wide drying-rack program will be implemented next semester.

The runner-up team projects were:

  • A proposal to reduce water consumption through shower-flow regulators in Comstock House (Katie Knowles ’19 and Karime Gutierrez ’20)

  • A project to increase the heating efficiency in Chase and Ziskind House by recording real-time room temperatures and creating a communication channel between students and Facilities Management to better regulate temperature (Yuqing Geng ’21 and Erika Melara ’20) 

The House Sustainability Challenge was developed as a way to encourage students to use their expertise as residents to help envision and design innovative ways of solving real life issues on campus in an environmentally sustainable manner. Design solutions must also be economically feasible and replicable across the residential houses.

-Erika Melara, CEEDS intern

Sustainability Challenge 2018 – Heat Efficiency

23 Apr

For this year’s House Sustainability Challenge (2017-2018), I teamed up with my classmate, Yuging Geng (’21), to design a project that could potentially increase the environment-friendly initiatives on campus. Living in Massachusetts, cold, winter-like makes up much of our academic year, making our heating systems a potential source both for energy savings and for improvement of personal comfort. Before moving to Ziskind, where I currently live, I was in Sessions House where my room felt significantly colder. However, closing my window disrupted my only source of fresh air, with the result that I often had to put on extra layers of clothes or purchase additional blankets to keep myself warm and comfortable. In Yuging’s house, Chase-Duckett, she noticed that her friends had variable temperatures in their rooms. For example, one of Yuging’s friends felt uncomfortable because it was too cold, while another friend’s room felt significantly warmer, sometimes even too warm. Based on these experiences, when the call went out for the Sustainability Challenge, we decided that students would benefit from a system in which they could view their dorm-room temperature so they could make better informed decisions about when to contact facilities to request a change in temperature.

We decided to wire in a breadboard, a temperature sensor (DS18B20), to Raspberry Pi 3 and code it, using Python, to collect temperature data and display it on a website (i.e. livestream). An additional benefit of using Raspberry Pi is that no changes in the infrastructure would need to be employed, as its performance mainly depends on Wi-Fi. Since we are both international students, we calculated the temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. We envisioned this project as an early tool to raise awareness not only about campus heating systems, but also about the lack of ventilation during the summer. Take a look at our prototype website: https://melaraerika.wixsite.com/sustainchallenge for more info!

This year’s House Sustainability Challenge was sponsored by the Conway Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the Design Thinking Initiative, the Office of Campus Sustainability, CEEDS, and the Office of Student Affairs.

-Erika Melara ’20 is a Scorpio who is happy that winter is finally fading away!

Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith?

11 Dec

Environmental Science and Policy major Breanna Parker (’18) recently presented an interim report on her thesis “Proxy Carbon Pricing at Smith: An economic transition strategy to lower carbon emissions through informed decision-making”. The inspiration her work, as she explained it, was the report which was released this spring by the college’s study group on climate change. The report provided a series of recommendations to develop and internalize constant carbon emissions such as a carbon proxy price to help guide major problems in budget management along with other decision-making processes. Smith College currently emits 27,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. While there are already a variety of new projects underway at Smith that will be more energy efficient (e.g. the new library), in order to significantly reduce our emissions, Parker recommends that the college apply proxy carbon pricing. With this honors thesis, Parker seeks to engage Smith stakeholders in order to standardize and incorporate the acceptance of carbon emissions into the decision-making process.

The specific mechanics of applying a carbon proxy is vital for a sustainable approach. Ultimately, this is an additional design criterion that people can use to evaluate different options. For instance, when evaluating a new purchasing offer, we first consider the quantities of carbon emissions obtained, then we modify the units to compare it with other options, and apply a proxy over the lifetime or life-cycle of a project since carbon emissions will continue to be released as the product is used. To this evaluation, we also add the initial and maintenance costs. With this method the complete carbon emissions cost can be used in comparison with other choices in order to select the most energy efficient and affordable plan. To help the audience better understand the process, Parker used the example of purchasing a light bulb. Which is a better choice- incandescent or LED? The incandescent light bulb has a cheaper initial cost, but has an expected lifetime of only about 1 year. In comparison, the LED light bulb has a lifetime of approximately 22 years. Since bulbs generate additional costs each time they must be replaced, even before it gets turned on, the incandescent starts out with a higher hidden cost. Moreover, incandescent light bulbs use more energy, which cause more carbon to be emitted. In comparison, the LED light bulb, although it has a higher initial purchasing cost, has a slower operating system that requires less energy and produces fewer carbon emissions. This, combined with its longer replacement interval, makes it the better option. This simple example highlights the importance of considering the entire lifetime cost of a system or component, which is not always considered.

Parker then spoke about some of the ways that Smith might be able to benefit from using proxy carbon evaluation. One example was in the renovation of Washburn House. When thinking about heating systems, there are two main approaches: geothermal or natural gas boilers. The latter is more common given its lower initial cost. Nonetheless, if the cost comparisons include long-term maintenance  and carbon emissions, the natural gas boilers have significantly higher life costs and higher carbon emissions, suggesting that a geothermal approach would be a better choice. She noted that carbon proxy evaluation can be used in other situations, too, and it is important and interesting to also consider the vehicles used at Smith. For instance, vans rely on gasoline, but with the availability of an electric parking station near campus, over the long run a transition to electric cars would mean lower carbon emissions and lower monetary costs.

Other universities have implemented different methodologies to acknowledge and lower their carbon emissions. For instance, Yale University has a carbon fee ($30) that is applied to all administrative units individually (buildings). Through some modifications in their infrastructure, they are able to read their carbon emissions levels, so if an academic building has lowered their carbon emissions, then they are able to gain a monetary revenue for other projects. Princeton University has a proxy carbon price similar to what Smith is considering. In this method, a tool was created for administrators to record the initial costs, operating and maintenance expenses, and apply a proxy carbon price to their projects. Swarthmore College has a combination of both a carbon fee ($100) and a proxy carbon price calculator.

Parker hopes that like other colleges and universities, Smith College will acknowledge its carbon emissions and move towards using carbon proxy evaluation for future projects so that the full cost- both environmental and financial- is part of the decision making process.

-CEEDS Intern Erika Melara (’20) is an Engineering major. She comes to us from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.

HCC-ALC: Owl Pellets Lab

6 Nov

After an owl hunts, how does it eat its prey? With a fork and a knife? Although modest, owls prefer to keep it simple by swallowing their prey whole. Impressive as it sounds, Jessika, a student at HCC- Adult Learning Center in Holyoke, asked, “Does that mean owls can digest bones and feathers?” The answer is…no! The undigested parts form a tight pellet that is later regurgitated. Gross! But not as much if it’s sterilized.

This past Wednesday (Nov. 1), through STEM Outreach, Thomas Gralinski, Ellen Sulser (‘18) and I (Erika Melara ‘20) visited the learning center and introduced the concept of Food Chains and Food Webs to a small class of pre-GED adult learners. After delivering a baseline presentation, we prepared a lab activity to dissect owl pellets. We particularly focused on the barn owls which usually prey on insects, reptiles, bats, and small rodents. An interesting fact about these owls is that they can hear a mouse’s footsteps from 30 yards away! This is fascinating, considering most of us can barely hear our names being called across the room.

Although some students were reluctant at first, by the end of the lab activity, they were determined to find and classify each of the bones to later boast about their owl’s appetite. Personally, I was bewildered about how some of the bones (i.e. skulls) were intact and well-preserved. Take a look at some of the pictures!

-Erika Melara is a Scorpio, who comes from El Salvador, where she enjoys eating pupusas and going to the beach.