Two Kutztown University math students could save Kutztown Borough thousands

Two Kutztown University students in Dr. Eric Landquist’s course, “Mathematical Modeling,” have been working in conjunction with the Kutztown Borough’s wastewater treatment plant. Their work has enough impact to potentially save the borough thousands of dollars.

The students, Joe Ritzko and Dan Steinberg, are both second semester seniors with dual majors in physics and math.

“They are two of our top students, and they’re dual majors, which means that they have a lot of applied mathematics background and a lot of computational experience. So I knew this problem would be right up their alley,” said Landquist.

Landquist, a KU assistant professor of math, applied for a Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences program, a grant from the National Science Foundation, administered through the Mathematical Association of America and the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

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“Instructors in a PIC Math course will go out to area businesses and organizations and look for open-ended quantitative problems for students to work on in groups in the context of the course,” said Landquist. “The course itself is part math course and part internship, so students in the course are getting real-world experience in actual real-world problems, with all of the messy data that that entails.”

He then contacted Derek Mace of the Kutztown Borough Council asking if there were any problems of interest in the borough that his students could work on. Landquist also spoke with KU President Dr. Kenneth Hawkinson, who meets regularly with Kutztown Mayor Sandy Green, from whom he learned about a problem with the wastewater treatment in Kutztown. Hawkinson passed that information along to Landquist.

“We are very proud of our partnership with the Borough of Kutztown and want to help its success in any way we can,” said Hawkinson. “I am thankful that we have projects such as this that help the town while giving our students great experience.”

Hawkinson says that he encourages situations like these that nurture the relationship between the university and the borough.

“We are very sensitive to our relationship with the community, and stories such as this demonstrate that it can be a win-win situation,” he said. “I think this tends to be the norm, rather than the exception. Every university and town face their challenges at some point, sometimes as the result of actions of a small representative of the student body. However, there are many more good stories, like this one, that the borough and university can tell that demonstrate how important we are to each other.”

According to Hawkinson, the university has been involved with helping in the creation of North Park just outside of town and the beautification in Kutztown Park. In addition, KU’s Small Business Development Center has been a resource for the area’s small business. Hawksinson also said that the university has been involved in extensive community service.

“We have so many talented students, faculty and staff who are a great resource to the borough,” he said. “We have been involved in many projects over the years and will continue to help in any way we can.”

Currently, the course is in its trial stage, but based on its apparent success and benefit to the students, Landquist is aiming to make it a full-time course.

“It really is a win-win situation,” said Landquist. “There are a lot of companies and organizations out there that have these back-burner problems that they just don’t have the time or resources to work on. We have students with time and resources that can attack the problems. It gives the organization, hopefully, a solution to a problem and it gives students experience that can give them a foot in the door for employment later.”

Ritzko and Steinburg were given a list of four problems that deal with the wastewater treatment plant. Out of the four, the students decided to tackle a problem that dealt with methane being produced in the plant.

“One item is determining if there is a way to utilize our methane gas which is produced during our sludge digestion process,” said Jarrad Burkert, manager of the wastewater treatment plant. “An example would be to use it as an additional fuel source to heat our sludge process and reduce the amount of fuel oil we currently use.”

According to Steinburg, Burkert has been told that a plant needs to be about three times the size of the Kutztown wastewater treatment plant to be able to heat up a digestive tank, because you need to keep it at 95 degrees. To heat it up solely with the methane produced by it, you need to be much larger.

“I am always up for new ideas,” said Burkert. “This seemed like a different aspect than we normally use to look at operations so I looked into some processes we have that students may be able to apply formulas to. We are always open to working with students if the application fits to also give them an out-of-classroom experience or project so I felt it was a great idea to look into.”

According to Steinburg, the Kutztown plant’s burner is capable of burning both fuel oil, which is currently used, or methane as the main constituent of the digestive gas.

“We don’t know exactly what percentage of the digestive gas is methane, but using a scholarly article we were able to say that is probably somewhere between 55 and 75 percent of the gas,” he said.

The students chose to complete this problem because it was the most easily applied and had the most direct impact. They have created a model mathematically that could save the borough money.

“The system itself cannot have a flow through system where there make enough to burn immediately to heat the plant so we’re installing a storage tank,” said Ritzko. “So part of what we’re doing is we’re seeing how much money they would save over five years by installing such a system to tell them what set-up costs need to be.”

The set-up cost has to be less than the amount that they saved in order for it to be profitable.

That’s a model that we’re considering,” said Ritzko. “We’re running through the range of the gasses produced from 55 percent to 75 percent and we’re seeing what the percent savings will be on top of a projection of five year total savings, the actual number as apposed to regular percentages, because the percentages should stay about the same.”

Burkert has invited the students back for a summer internship.

“Ultimately what we do during the internship is probably based on what Mr. Burkert wants,” said Steinburg. “If he thinks its more valuable for us to go onto a different problem than to try to extend the methane problem then we’ll go onto a different problem because we will be working for him.”

Though, Ritzko and Steinburg are open to extending their current problem to find a solution.

“We’re kind of open to carry the internship over to next summer or continue working on it during the school year so it would be a little of the same,” said Ritzko.

“We don’t know if there’s a solution, we might find out that there is a solution and it’s not good enough, we might find out that there’s a solution and it’s great. We might found out that our entire model, we tried to model it in a way and it wasn’t modeled correctly and we need to start over from scratch,” said Steinburg.

According to Landquist, the students in the course don’t necessarily always come up with the best solution to a problem.

“Mathematics in the real world is often messy,” said Landquist. “You have a lot of data, you have gigantic systems that if you want to find the optimal solution, it just may not be feasible to do so. So mathematical modeling is all about coming up with a solution in a decent amount of time that could possibly get you what you want. It may not be the best solution. Finding the best solution may be computationally impossible.”

Burkert said that the wastewater treatment plant is willing to continue to work with KU students if it remains relative to what the plant does. He said that he hopes to continue to educate those interested in the processes that the facility undergoes.

“If we can continue to host tours and work with students hopefully we can educate people on what wastewater treatment is about,” said Burkert. “Many people have no idea what happens after they put something down the drain. There is also a huge array of jobs and careers in water treatment so if this can help assist an individual in a career choice that would be outstanding.”