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  May 8, 2001

Class Uses Mathematical Models
to Address Environmental Issues

Today, seated at their desks, students trace the flow of contaminated ground water in a small town. Another day, they will determine whether air pollution in a city has reached dangerous levels, or if a highway should be closed off after a tank truck has spilled hazardous materials.

These real-life scenarios are part of a new course offered for the first time this semester, which introduces students to the use of mathematical models to solve a variety of environmental issues. Open to all students, the interdisciplinary course, Math 108V, covers the physical and chemical processes as well as the legal, political and ethical implications of environmental issues, and shows how mathematical models are used naturally and routinely to help analyze them fully.

Sarah Glaz, a professor of mathematics who created the course, says it is very interactive. When the class dealt with ground water contamination, students worked out the path of the water and measured it on a map. "They measured the various distances and used formulas to calculate how fast the water was flowing, how quickly it would get to a particular building, and whether there would be enough time to clean up the contamination." Students then went to a computer lab and used an Excel spreadsheet program to keep track of data and graph their results.

In addition to using the Excel program, computers are also used to keep students 'virtually' involved in environmental issues via the Internet. The beginning of the course, for instance, coincided with the oil spill just off the Galapagos Islands. "There were all these pictures of beautiful pelicans coated with oil. The students went online and found out about it, and we discussed it in class," Glaz says. "I taught them that the spilling of oil on water uses the same kind of modeling as the dispersion of gases in air pollution." An interactive risk analysis program is also used to analyze hazardous material case scenarios.

Students taking the course come from a variety of academic backgrounds. "The class has attracted a very diverse student body," Glaz, says, "from freshman to seniors, and from people who say they hated math to math majors. They all find something interesting here."

Patel Ankur, a senior majoring in math, says he is learning a lot more about applied mathematics than he does in most of the math classes he is taking. Christina Mackey, a junior majoring in elementary education, says she will be able to use some of the concepts when she teaches younger children.

Glaz got the idea for the course when she was browsing through books at a conference. "I was at a book display when I stumbled on a book by Charles Hadlock that I'm now using as the text for the course. It was not only mathematically fascinating, but also unusually well written." Hadlock, a professor at Bentley College who recently gave a guest lecture to the class, was a mathematical consultant on environmental issues for many famous cases, including Three Mile Island, The Love Canal, and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India.

Glaz says the book caught her attention and inspired the course. "My research area is in pure mathematics and this took me in a completely different direction."

For a virtual taste of this course, visit its website.

Sherry Fisher

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