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NSF Funds UT Engineering Look at Stormwater Adaptation, STEM Education

Jon HathawayThe growing reputation of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Engineering as a center for environmental research got a big boost recently thanks to the National Science Foundation.

The NSF’s Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation announced backing for a UT-led project to identify techniques for more sustainably managing stormwater runoff in urban areas.

Headed by an interdisciplinary team from the College of Engineering, the project includes Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Jon Hathaway as well as Assistant Professor Anahita Khojandi, joint ORNL-UT Associate Professor Olufemi Omitaomu and Associate Professor Xueping Li, all of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

“We’re excited about this project. We all view problems through a different lens, so when we collaborate there is a synergy that really elevates the final product,” said Hathaway, the team’s principal investigator. “The issue of urbanization and urban runoff management is only getting worse, and we believe the methods developed in this study will be really beneficial to municipalities nationwide.”

As part of those efforts, the team is working on the assumption that urban areas have out-of-date, undersized and crumbling stormwater infrastructure. The team suggests that rather than replacing this infrastructure, areas should use more sustainable techniques, such as implementing a green infrastructure, to achieve multiple environmental and societal goals.

While taking an environmentally friendly approach to the problem is key to the recommendations, the team notes that changing weather patterns can leave cities unsure of the best way to spend their resources.

In an effort to alleviate some of that uncertainty, the team wants to present city planners and decision makers with data showing what’s likely to happen based on infrastructure upgrades they may or may not make.

To achieve that level of information, the team is taking a number of approaches:

  • Looking at future weather predictions based on a number of climate models.
  • Using hydrologic modeling to show how particular areas respond to flooding under various climate scenarios.
  • Employing high-end mathematics to account for weather variations over time as part of infrastructure planning.
  • Taking socio-economic factors into consideration on a case-by-case basis to show best use of green infrastructure.

“Our team is working with novel approaches such as hydrologic response models from environmental engineering and stochastic programming models from industrial engineering,” Li said.

“This innovative framework enables us to tackle a new class of problems that require new methodologies to maintain a holistic view while developing practical solutions.”

Another key component of the plan that drew the NSF’s attention is that the team plans to boost diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education by partnering with campus chapters for minority education, such as UT’s branch of the Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.