Carnegie Mellon University
March 20, 2023

Steinbrenner Institute Hosts Annual Sustainability Symposium

By Kathy Zhang

Carnegie Mellon University's Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research hosted its Sustainability Symposium on Friday, March 17th in the Bosch Spark Conference Room. The annual symposium began in 2016 as an Earth Day event and is an opportunity for both undergraduate and graduate students at CMU to showcase projects and research of theirs which relate to sustainability in some way.

This year it saw around thirty student projects of various disciplines. The room was crowded with posters, slideshows, and films about various subjects ranging from waste management to algal emissions to more equitable urban infrastructure.

The symposium offered participants two prizes and was judged by:

This year's two $1,500 Travel Awards were awarded to:

Morgan Newman - Steinbrenner Symposium 2023 Winner

Morgan Newman, Architecture

Project Title: Sewage Right are Human Rights: The Problem of Sewage, Flooding, and Environmental Racism in America's Black Belt Communities

Abstract: Alabama’s Black Belt region is in desperate need of investment and attention, however, the issue of water and sewage might be the most pressing. Issues of flooding and standing water are known problems in the region and are a result of a myriad of infrastructure and economic problems. Over 25 percent of residents in counties within the Black Belt region live below the poverty line. Along with economic disenfranchisement, the region lacks much-needed sustainable infrastructure systems. Around 80 percent of residents in the region do not have municipal sewer lines and have poor (if any) sewage removal alternatives. This project aims to empower residents with easily digestible knowledge on how to monitor their surroundings and make small sustainable changes to their individual wastewater management systems until more robust infrastructures are put in place. A preliminary geological and spatial analysis will observe if changes in the region's soil content over recent years might cause problems of flooding and standing water to increase in the future. A secondary analysis using spatial statistics and predictive modeling will help identify high-risk and vulnerable areas within the Black Belt using environmental, economic, and demographic data. Additionally, a Spearman rank correlation test will identify if high-risk areas are highly correlated with predominantly poor and Black communities in the region. Finally, a written report and open-access dashboard will be created and shared throughout the communities for residents to use for future reference. The next phase of this project, set to take place summer of 2023, will include visiting communities and hosting workshops for residents.

Andrew Jones - Steinbrenner Symposium 2023 Winner

Andrew Jones, Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy (2020 Steinbrenner Institute and Heinz Presidential Fellow)

Project Title: Climate Change Impacts on Future Electricity Consumption and Energy Burden

Abstract: In a warming climate, the need for household cooling has important implications when considering the distribution of climate change impacts for vulnerable groups. We find that the median elderly and low-income household's cooling behavior may be more impacted by rising summertime average temperatures than their middle-aged and high-income counterparts (+5 percentage points). This finding quantifies how existing structural inequalities can be perpetuated by climate change without interventions. Including AC efficiency upgrades show that low-income households can spend as high as 14% of their income on their summertime energy needs, a 2-percent point reduction from a scenario without efficiency improvements. These findings can support local and state decision makers' efforts to combat inequality through efficiency improvements. 

The judges were very impressed by everyone's work and decided to award a third $500 Travel Award to:

Kian Pu - Steinbrenner Symposium 2023 Honorable Mention Winner

Kian Pu, Mechanical Engineering

Project Title: Dynamic Electrochromism for All-season Radiative Thermoregulation

Abstract: Radiative thermoregulation can reduce the energy consumption for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) in buildings, and therefore contribute substantially to climate change mitigation. Electrochromism, a phenomenon in which a material exhibits reversible colour changes under an external electrical stimulus, can help control the heat balance of buildings in response to fluctuating weather conditions; however, its implementation has been largely limited to visible and near-infrared wavelength regimes. Here we develop an aqueous flexible electrochromic design for use as a building envelop based on graphene ultra-wideband transparent conductive electrode and reversible copper electrodeposition, in which the thermal emissivity can be tailored to vary between 0.07 and 0.92 with excellent long-term durability. Building energy simulations show that our design as building envelopes can save on year-round operational HVAC energy consumption across the United States by up to 43.1 MBtu on average in specific zones. Such dynamic emissivity tunability can further serve as a non-destructive technological solution to retrofit poorly insulated or historic buildings. Our work suggests a feasible pathway to radiative thermoregulation for more energy-efficient HVAC and solving some of the global climate change issues.

Special thanks to the judges for their time and careful review of all projects, Veggies N'at for providing lunch, and the student participants for their captivating work.