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Engineering students give Phoenix some shade

November 28, 2007

Shade is no trivial matter in the sun-drenched desert climate of Phoenix.

That’s why Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon lauded the “bright young talent” of a group of ASU engineering students who took on challenges to devise methods for increasing and optimizing shade cover in city’s urban core.

At a recent City Hall press conference, Gordon presented $1,000 prizes to each of two teams of graduate students in the Department of Industrial Engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering for their shade solutions.

Entries in the competition to solve the shade planning and design questions were received from students at Arizona’s three state universities.

Sharing the prize for the best cost-efficient algorithm to provide shade was the ASU team of doctoral students Ozgur Araz, Shanshan Wang and Liangjie Xue, and master’s program student Onur Senman.

The top prize for an algorithm and a computer software program that could be used by small businesses to provide adequate shade on their properties went to the ASU team of doctoral students Shrikant Jarugumilli, Rachel Johnson and Serhat Gul, and master’s program student Matthew Rogers.

The teams’ designs for how to use trees and shade structures to produce maximum “shade value” are to be incorporated into the city’s broader strategies for developing a more sustainable, comfortable and inviting downtown environment.

“It’s great to see what we have learned in school be used to change things for the better in real life,” Wang says.

Adds Rogers: “This was a great experience. It made tangible all of the engineering concepts I learned over the last year and a half. It’s inspiring to work on a project that potentially can be used to improve downtown Phoenix.”

Gordon was sold on the project by Eliana Hechter, who had served a brief internship in the mayor’s office in 2006 before beginning studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, where she is pursing a doctorate in statistical genetics.

It was one of the first endeavors for the company Hechter recently founded, called eBourbaki. (The name is derived from the pseudonym of a group of mathematicians who worked together in France beginning in the 1930s to revise the foundations of modern mathematics.) She formed the company to organize competitions to apply mathematical modeling in seeking practical solutions to society’s sustainability challenges.

Hechter viewed the shade engineering challenge as a perfect complement to the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project launched under Gordon’s leadership in 2006.

The idea drew support – including donations of prize money – from the Thunderbirds, the civic and charitable group that runs the popular annual FBR Open pro golf tournament, and from Honeywell Corp.’s Honeywell Hometown Solutions community outreach program.

With Department of Industrial Engineering chair Ron Askin and professor John Fowler as project advisers, students worked on devising cost-efficient methods to distribute trees and structures throughout downtown Phoenix so that sidewalks and other public spaces are shaded for most of the daylight hours.

They designed a computer program that small business owners can use to determine where to plant trees on their properties to efficiently provide optimum shade.

Students proposed a “mixed integer programming model” as a guide to choosing the types of trees and geometrical planting patterns that would provide abundant shade.

After calculating the “shade factor” of various types of trees, they devised a computer algorithm for a coordinate system to determine where and how many trees to plant to achieve desired shading.

Given their busy schedules, Askin says, “It’s amazing what the students were able to accomplish in a one-week competition. They were able to research the necessary background information, translate the problem into a mathematical form, develop and test a solution method, and document their results.”

The teams presented their solutions to Phoenix planning department officials.

Principal city planner Dean Brennan said the students’ proposals would be worked into the Connected Oasis segment of Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project plan.