Finding the way: Engineering students create a simpler scheduler


By Miranda Buckheit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With nearly 100 radioactive material labs that require routine support and annual surveys at Penn State’s University Park campus, the Penn State Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) radiation protection group needed a tight, fast and effective schedule for workers to stay socially distanced.

A team of six interns from the College of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory internship program rose to the challenge and created such a platform to help provide an easily accessible scheduling system for the EHS radiation protection group.

The team consisted of industrial engineering students Robert Probst, doctoral candidate; Maria Perla, senior; Tyler Bodnar, fall 2020 graduate; Grace Hageman, sophomore; Dylan Gold, junior; and Jane Pham, senior. The group was supervised by Charlie Purdum, professor of practice and director of industry relations in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, and Aaron Wilmot, assistant radiation safety officer in the environmental health and safety division of OPP.

“We recognized this as a good teaching opportunity and engaged the College of Engineering’s Learning Factory,” Wilmot said. “This partnership between University safety professionals and students also provided opportunities to support OPP’s living laboratory educational role.”

OPP’s living laboratory stretches across 30 million square feet of Penn State facilities to enhance engagement across academic and research endeavors, according to Wilmot.

At University Park, for this project, the living laboratory took the form of 90 to 100 labs spread throughout 18 buildings across nearly 8,000 acres. Over the course of 10 weeks, the students analyzed the amount of time it took to survey a lab space, which buildings contained the most labs, how much time it took to walk or drive between locations, the number of hours that an employee can work, which buildings needed surveying first and several other parameters important to survey planning.

The students also had to account for COVID-19 and campus construction restrictions.

The team applied the “traveling salesman” approach mixed with clustering, solving for the distance between locations to find the shortest possible route that stops at each location before returning to the starting point.

“It was an interesting problem because the traveling salesman works perfectly in theory, but we need to think of the employees,” Perla said. “Employees can’t work more than an eight-hour day. We had to make the plan safe and doable, within reason.”

The students clustered the buildings, providing optimized groups for travel between the buildings within a given day. The result was an interactive excel worksheet, allowing EHS to input the number of workers they have each day, how many hours each employee can work and the number of days in which the surveys needed to be completed. The worksheet then suggests optimized routes for surveying.

“If you are an OPP manager and surveys are coming up, you can pull up the sheet that has a defined table and service days with clusters in the service days,” Bodnar said. “It will give the manager an optimal schedule and layout to show how many service day assignments there are in total.”

According to Pham, the team hopes that their work will aid EHS in their work. The students also digitized building files to help EHS managers easily track which labs do specific types of experiments, along with the square footage of labs, in the tool.

“It was amazing to see how much work goes into these labs that people don’t often think about because you can’t always see them,” Pham said. “It’s also so cool to think that OPP can operate on something that we designed. This internship gave me so much to talk about and to think about for future experiences.”


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Megan Lakatos