Last month the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) unveiled two completed projects that greatly increase the organization’s ability to squeeze savings from daily operations.

The first, the net-zero energy Wilde Lake Middle School, is designed to produce more energy than it consumes during a year of operation; the second, a tool consisting of mathematical modeling and solution software, aims to analyze and organize the most efficient transportation routes possible.

The modeling tool is also being used to more accurately identify transportation costs associated with four new school start and dismissal time models under consideration by the Howard County Board of Education.

“We are using science and engineering to make informed decisions about school start and dismissal times, and to maximize our existing resources,” said HCPSS Superintendent Renee Foose.

Informed Decisions

Touted as the first net-zero energy school building in Maryland, Wilde Lake Middle School opened its doors to students returning from holiday break on Jan. 2, and welcomed the community for tours during a Jan. 8 open house.

The centerpiece of the school’s energy supply system is a 633-kilowatt solar energy system fed by 1,400 solar panels on the roof and another 600 on the ground. Geothermal power technology contributes to the school’s energy needs, and the school itself can also be used as an instructional tool while class is in session — thanks to monitoring devices in each classroom and four real-time information kiosks located throughout the building.

HCPSS constructed the new, $33 million school building to replace an aging school constructed in 1969, using county and state funding that included a $2.77 million grant from the Maryland Energy Administration.

“One large centralized plant houses controls for everything from our rooftop, air conditioning units, heat pumps and exhaust,” said Scott Washington, HCPSS director of school construction.

Efficiencies are also derived from the building’s physical orientation, thermal insulation and use of natural daylight and light sensors. Moreover, certain outlets in the school can be switched off entirely when not in use to prevent plug loads from draining electricity from the school unnecessarily.

Even the school’s epoxy terrazzo floors contribute to energy savings, requiring little more than mopping to clean. “They don’t need to be waxed and buffed so the operating cost is a lot lower, but the duration of the floor itself is a lot higher,” Washington said. “It will last 30-to-40 years.”

Active Learning

All of the county’s schools constructed since 2010 are LEED certified (two gold and seven silver), and Wilde Lake Middle is no exception, targeting the gold and potentially platinum level.

“We’ve been in the school for one day, but already there is a positive energy from students and staff,” said Principal Anne Swartz during a media tour, emphasizing the mood-enhancing effect of more windows and improved lighting, compared to the old school. “Add to that the technology and the ability to monitor how we’re consuming energy. That helps, because students are conscious of it, and they’re building responsibility.”

Mechanical, electrical and plumbing consultants have begun implementing lessons learned at Wilde Lake in the design and construction of other new schools, and to the greatest extent possible in the renovation of existing schools, Washington said.

Amber Coleman and Sharon Barnes, parents of students attending the school, expressed appreciation for the Board of Education’s decision to build a state-of-the-art school rather than spend roughly the same amount of money on renovations.

“These kids deserve to be on the cutting edge of the future of technology, in a beautiful environment that respects them,” Coleman said. “They can really bring their parents and other adults into the future with them with what they’re learning here.”

Barnes recognized the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” afforded to students who attend one of only 12 net-zero energy schools in the nation.

“It’s an opportunity to prepare themselves for the future by living sustainably and thinking that way,” Barnes said. “It gives them a head start.”

Board of Education Member Kirsten Coombs, whose daughter also attends the school, said that the incorporation of readily visible real-time monitors actually encourages all students to participate and be active learners.

“The whiteboards can be screenshot, so kids can get copies of things if they don’t take perfect notes,” she said. “We’re involving kids in programs that can be utilized, teaching them about their own energy usage and how they are citizens of the community. My daughter is thrilled to see how she is impacting her environment.”

Transportation Tool

Later in the month, HCPSS announced it is adopting a new mathematical modeling tool developed by the University of Maryland’s (UMD) A. James Clark School of Engineering to make contracted school bus operations more efficient and cost-effective.

“Our model and solution algorithm enables us to solve the [transportation routing] problem in a matter of seconds, and therefore we were able to analyze numerous scenarios very effectively,” said Ali Haghani, a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering professor.

It’s a significant tool, school officials said, considering that increasing the number of routes and drivers to meet scheduling goals could add several million dollars each year to the school system budget.

HCPSS sought the expertise of UMD researchers and students in the Robert H. Smith School of Business’s QUEST (Quality Enhancement System and Teams) Honors Program to design the modeling tool, which relies on a database of bus routes to generate tours for different opening and closing times.

Optimizing Operations

In a test using 2014 HCPSS bus routes, the tool calculated optimized routes and scheduling that required 20 fewer buses than the 324 tactually used, Haghani said, and it has already been used to analyze efficiencies in current HCPSS bus routes.

According to HCPSS Transportation Director David Ramsay, 453 buses currently travel more than 30,000 miles each day to transport more than 40,000 students to 76 public elementary, middle and high schools. Those figures do not include additional daily routes to non-public special education schools in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

“We have an extensive operation. I believe we are the fifth largest in the state, and we’re in the top 50 in the United States,” Ramsay said.

The Clark School is offering to use the tool to analyze school bus tours for every county in the state, free of charge.

“We view our cooperation with the HCPSS not only as a very valuable research project, but also as a way of accomplishing the mission of the university to serve the state and its population,” Haghani said.

“Even modest adjustments to school opening and closing times can have impacts on our entire community,” Foose said. “By reaching out to our state’s flagship research university for support with this process, HCPSS has gained access to the most complete, accurate and timely information possible to support scheduling decisions and optimize transportation operations.”