When you flip that switch on the wall, you expect that light to go on. Reliability is one of the most basic requirements for electricity suppliers.
A classroom of undergraduate mathematics degree program students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, guided by their teacher, is working with one of the biggest utilities in the area to help ensure its service remains reliable.
The goal for students in Wesley Calvert’s Industrial Mathematics class is to generate data-driven predictions of reliability for Ameren Illinois, which supplies power to many thousands of homes and business across a 43,700-square-mile territory in central and Southern Illinois.
Calvert, associate professor of mathematics, said the goal is to increase the company’s advance knowledge of how reliable its system will remain as a whole during a period of several months. The project is a “real world” exercise that could have a real impact on the company and its customers.
Predicting reliability is an attempt to discern how many customers might be impacted by a certain number of outages over a period of time. It’s a complex issue, with many factors and calculations, but one which the students hope can help provide some insights for Ameren Illinois’ consideration.
Rolling with the changes
Calvert got the class of 12 students involved in the project as part of his role as director of undergraduate programs in the mathematics department. Once appointed, he knew he wanted to enhance the way the program prepared students for jobs in business, industry and government. For one thing, the demand for professionals in data science and analytics has grown greatly during the last few years.
“Many of our students have been getting these jobs, but I felt like we could do more to make a good transition from their work in classes to their careers,” Calvert said. “They take classes that make them really knowledgeable in statistics, modeling, optimization, analytics and more. But we needed a way to connect them with what real projects for real companies look like, and to give them real experience to prepare them for real jobs.”
One of the things he did was apply to a program at the Mathematical Association of America. The National Science Foundation grant helps professors learn to organize classes such as the one he envisioned.
“Once I was awarded the grant, they took me out to their workshop last spring where I could hear advice from professors who had done this at their own universities, and from industry and government professionals who had worked with students on these projects,” Calvert said.
Along the way, he sent a message to Ameren Illinois, asking if the company might be interested in cooperating on a project. Ameren Illinois engineers contacted him just a few days later.
“We are extremely pleased to partner with (Calvert) and his students on this project,” said Ron Pate, senior vice president of operations and technical services for Ameren Illinois. “With nearly half of the company’s workforce at or nearing retirement age, it’s imperative that we begin to train young people early to take on these future careers. Partnerships like the one we have with SIU are an excellent way to introduce the students to our company and get them excited about a future career in STEM.”
A challenging task
For students, getting their arms around the problem was the
first step, Calvert said. First, they had to figure out what data is available
and what questions they wanted to answer.
“If you’ve done middle school math, you can appreciate that this sometimes takes a good deal of thought, and at this scale, it really is a major undertaking,” Calvert said.
Outage reports alone run to many hundreds of pages, including data fields such as times, dates, causes and durations, among others.
“And that doesn’t even include the weather conditions,” Calvert said.
Matching the students to the tasks
Then there’s the team of students and their various backgrounds and strengths to consider. Together they could help solve each piece of the puzzle, once they understood what it is supposed to look like.
“I have 12 students with 12 different mathematical backgrounds,” he said. “Among the lot of them, they know quite a lot of math. Now they have to figure out how to use it on a problem way too big to be a part of any normal class, and without having a neat label on the class that tells them which tool they’ll need.”
Among those students are Daina McKinney and Madison Wilderman. Each has her own task and approach to the challenge. For example, along with three other students, McKinney is building an array of regression models and using time series methods to get answers.
“I have experience with regression models and I’m confident that we can fulfill our goal of giving the most accurate predictions possible to Ameren Illinois by the end of the semester,” said McKinney, a senior in mathematics from Benton. “It’s an incredible opportunity for everyone involved. We’re gaining the experience of applying our math knowledge and skills learned at SIU, as well as working in a group setting. It’s helping us as students gain work experience in the math field, and it’s allowing us to see what jobs might be out there when we graduate.”
Wilderman, a junior in mathematics from New Athens, said she plays the role of group motivator.
“Since I don’t know how to solve this problem by myself, I’ve been able to research more into the topics that I’m unfamiliar with,” Wilderman said. “Along with learning new material, I’m getting experience with large data sets and analyzing software, and those are very important skills to have when looking into a career in mathematics.”
‘Soft skills’ also employed
Part of the effort involves maintaining contact with Ameren Illinois
throughout the process, Calvert said. That involves explaining technical details
from newly discovered angles, making sure both parties are still on the same
page, and giving talks or writing reports for a technical audience, instead of
“This is where they really have to deploy the professional soft skills we’ve been helping them develop,” he said.
Calvert said the experience is in line with SIU’s mission as a university and turning students into educated professionals while showing them how classroom skills apply for real.
“By the end, the student has to make a pivot to figuring out for themselves what the problem is, what knowledge and techniques are going to help, and then deploying them to enact a solution to the problem,” he said. “This is a course about making that transition.”