National Science Foundation supports Virginia Tech engineer in efforts to improve public school infrastructure

BLACKSBURG, Va., June 16, 2009 – With more than 53 million children in the United States spending time in some 135,000 school buildings across the country, concern about the possible indoor pollution they are exposed to for several hours a day is understandable. Possible contaminants include asbestos, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), radon, pesticides, and biological agents such as fungi and bacteria.

“As with the bulk of the national civil infrastructure, the public school infrastructure is at risk of deterioration and in need of systematic condition management,” said Deborah Young-Corbett, an assistant professor who directs the Occupational and Construction Hazard Reduction Engineering Laboratory, part of Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction and the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech.

“Building condition maintenance and management practices are correlated with the health of the indoor environment. Given the constrained financial resources facing our national educational system, school decision makers are in need of systematic methods of evaluating risks associated with facility condition and prioritizing maintenance activities,” she added.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) considers this problem significant, and has awarded Young-Corbett a $174,275 grant to help provide a way to better manage the health of the public school infrastructure. Young-Corbett points to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) that cites approximately one-quarter of the nation’s schools, housing some 11 million of the total number of school children, as requiring “extensive repair.” And nearly 40 percent of the 135,000 school buildings reported unsatisfactory environmental conditions.

School officials “need a framework for enhanced decision-making in their selection of maintenance and capital outlay alternatives for all of the environmental health aspects of the public school infrastructure,” Young-Corbett said.

The NSF award will allow her to develop a strategy for use by the school officials.

Young-Corbett is among a breed of engineering faculty called industrial hygienists. She emphasizes the control of health hazards that come from the built environment or that are inherent to the construction process. She received her doctorate in industrial and systems engineering from Virginia Tech, and holds two master’s degrees. One is in ecology from N.C. State University and the second one is in industrial and systems engineering, also from Virginia Tech. Her bachelor’s degree is in biology.

She holds certifications as an industrial hygienist, a safety professional, and a hazardous materials manager.

Among her current projects, she is using evaluation tools developed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Building Assessment Survey and Evaluation (BASE) of the indoor environment to catalog parameters from non-LEED certified housing structures across economic and geographic sectors. She is looking for relationships between the sectors that contribute to the inhabitants’ health, comfort, and willingness to adapt to new sustainability technology.

Using her engineering skills, Young-Corbett is working with structural equation modeling and geographic information systems (GIS) to create models to describe the impacts of building construction choices, climate, and indoor pollutants on human health. Her models employ more than 6,000 data points related to building construction, HVAC design, environmental contaminants and inhabitant symptoms collected from some 100 randomly selected public and commercial buildings in 37 cities in 25 states.

Using this information and her new NSF grant, under the agency’s Broadening Participation Research Initiation Grants in Engineering (BRIGE) program, to attain additional information, Young-Corbett will be producing a facilities management optimization model and guidelines for school officials.

She also plans to develop a new college-level course on indoor environmental quality that will incorporate her findings as well as the application of established civil infrastructure management techniques to indoor environmental quality management. These established techniques have been successfully applied to different segments of the nation’s infrastructure including roads, bridges, water supplies, waste systems, and airports. Her work also extends into the middle schools as she regularly conducts annual presentations targeted to the recruitment of girls into the engineering pipeline.