Bridging the gap between engineering and policy
Sophomore Katherine Zoellmer’s internship with the City of Houston’s Office of Sustainability gave her a great many benefits. She’s more confident in her abilities, particularly, in decision making, she said. She also saw how class work can apply to the real world.
But the biggest thing she took away from the experience is that she wants to double major in chemical engineering and policy studies.
“I’d been interested in renewable energy for a while,” said Zoellmer. “But this internship showed me how to look beyond the numbers and equations of energy and see how society reacts to policy and how you can implement change. By the time I finished the internship, I knew I needed to double major.”
Zoellmer spent the summer conducting energy-use analysis on the city’s buildings. She looked at how they were using electricity and other resources so that the city could devise more sustainable practices, whether it might be conserving resources or investing in new equipment that offered better, “green” results.
“I’d never done analysis like that before,” she said. “And I was basically told, ‘run the numbers and see what stands out.’”
Zoellmer’s work was to provide a baseline; the City of Houston had never run a study like this. She found that the city’s electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions have been slowly decreasing since 2007, whereas, natural gas consumption has been steadily increasing. The most surprising thing to her, however, was that one department, Health and Human Services (HHS), is responsible for 58 percent of emissions by the city, with one lab accounting for 91 percent of that number.
“My internship allowed me to see trends in the statistics,” she said. “I’d taken a general statistics class in high school, but this gave me a hands-on opportunity to use what I knew. The sustainability department is currently looking into why this lab’s electricity use is so large. It’s the city's primary lab, conducting rabies and virus samples, as well as environmental and water quality testing. It makes sense that the lab would use lots of electricity because of the large equipment, but the department is looking to see if there are other factors where changes can be implemented, like more efficient lighting, newer HVAC systems, or something else.”
The last time Zoellmer checked in on the project, HHS representatives were arranging for a tour of the lab. She also said the city is planning to continue the analysis she started.
Zoellmer hopes that in the future she’ll work in renewable energy, either in the government or legal sector. For her, bridging technical engineering with a deeper understanding of societal issues is what makes her engineering studies richer.
“I came to Rice because it has a strong engineering school, but it also has a liberal arts aspect to it that’s such a great fit for me. An internship like this, and the classroom experiences I’ve had, are exactly why I chose Rice.”