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The Calculus of Climate Change: Applying math to real-world situations with Professor Tom Pfaff

Written by Christopher Lisee
12/11/2009

Professor Pfaff, working in his office. Photo by Mike Grippi '10

Forty years from now, warmer temperatures may mean that Rieslings will no longer reign as the premier wine of the Finger Lakes region. At least that’s what mathematics professor Tom Pfaff’s research indicates.

In independent study courses, Pfaff ’90 has been working with students to sort through data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in order to create mathematical models of climate change.

 Professor Pfaff meets with students in his office. Photo by Mike Grippi '10

Professor Pfaff meets with students in his office. Photo by Mike Grippi '10


These models are applied to real-world situations, such as wine and maple syrup production. Riesling grapes require a number of cool nights at the end of the growing season; without them, quality may diminish.

Meanwhile, other Old World vinifera grapes, like those used to make chardonnay and cabernet franc, could improve with warmer winter temperatures and a longer growing season. That information could help local wineries in deciding what crops to plant.

It’s one of the many ways Pfaff integrates sustainability and real-world information into his teaching.

“When I teach upper-level math classes, abstraction and theory are the important things to do,” Pfaff says. “But when you’re teaching courses like Calculus I or freshman statistics, you want to keep it as applied and real and concrete as you possibly can to make it engaging to those audiences.”

Environmentally savvy and health conscious, Pfaff and his wife, Janice, grow their own produce, trying to harvest something from the ground every month: garlic, carrots, parsnips that survive ground freezes, greens grown in cold frames (a box placed over plants to protect them from freezing), berries, and quinces.

In the corner of his office, right by the pictures of his four beaming boys, sits a commuter bicycle, its gears and chain rusty from the winter’s salt and moisture.

“You really can bike in February around here,” Pfaff says, even though it has reduced the bike to just one useful gear and brake. Though it’s his ninth year at IC, only recently have colleagues begun to comment on the bike’s “fuel efficiency,” he says.

For Pfaff, education is as much about gaining book knowledge as learning social responsibility. So he’s introducing math courses to the curriculum that you won’t find at any other school, like last fall’s Oil, Energy, and the Future of Society.

For a recent assignment, he had students analyze oil usage statistics from various sources for their credibility.

“People have to have a solid understanding of why groups are concerned about climate change and about oil and coal use, so you have an educated population voting and making decisions,” Pfaff says.

“Unless people have an understanding of what’s going on, there’s no reason to do anything differently. So education is an important first step toward any sort of change in a society.”



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