UF OEM Alumna Implements Environmental Sustainability Project at Valencia College

From left: Kathleen Plinkse, Ed.D., Mengyu Li, Ph.D., Mostafa Reisi Gahrooei, Ph.D., Patsy Messinger

On a recent visit to Valencia College’s Poinciana campus in Kissimmee, Fla., U.S. Rep. Darren Soto announced a $500,000 federally funded project that will support a solar energy system proposed to reduce campus utility costs. Valencia College also plans to match these funds to support the project.  

This project was developed, in part, by a recent graduate of the Outreach Engineering Management (OEM) Program at the University of Florida. Kathleen Plinske, Ed.D., who is Valencia College’s current president, graduated from OEM in May 2021. OEM is a master’s program offered by the UF Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISE) and is designed for working professionals with various technical backgrounds. During the program, students are taught a combination of ISE and business coursework via a flexible schedule so that they can mitigate risk and make informed business decisions in the workplace.  

During her final project in the program, Dr. Plinske explored how to utilize various analytics techniques and ISE tools such as building simulation modeling, data analytics, and stochastic modeling to enhance the sustainability efforts at Valencia College, where she served as the college’s executive vice president and provost at the time. 

“When the Valencia College Poinciana Campus opened in 2017, it was designed to be net-zero capable, with an explicit commitment to environmental sustainability,” Dr. Plinske said. “When exploring capstone project possibilities with Dr. Mostafa Reisi, our OEM/ISE capstone mentor, I learned that he had expertise in evaluating the optimal time to invest in residential solar energy systems. He agreed to work with our capstone group on modifying his models to identify the optimal time to invest in solar energy for a college campus, namely our Poinciana Campus.”  

As president, Dr. Plinske is committed to the campus goal of reducing Valencia College’s greenhouse gas emissions and achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2050. This goal also aligns with Osceola County’s mission to reduce the risks of climate change by investing in sustainable development plans for new construction with the hope that existing buildings will follow suit.  

“While working on the modeling, Valencia learned of an opportunity to apply for a Community Project Grant through Congressman Soto’s office.  Our capstone group re-ran our models considering the possibility of a $500,000 grant. The results were very clear – the optimal time to invest in solar was immediately,” said Dr. Plinske. “This analysis allowed us to develop a compelling proposal which was supported by Congressman Soto. Rooftop solar at Poinciana will meet 40% of the campus’s energy needs. This is a significant step forward for Valencia as we work toward our college-wide carbon neutrality goal.”  

The proposed campus solar panels will not only have significant environmental benefits but will also serve students attending Valencia’s Poinciana campus, develop more jobs, and modernize the district’s current infrastructure (Soto, 2022).  

“The combination of Dr. Plinske’s forward-thinking for the sustainability of Valencia College with the guidance of our outstanding UF faculty in the Outreach Engineering Management program led to the engineering concept for this project,” said David Kaber, Ph.D., ISE department chair, “Representative Soto’s congressional request and advocacy made the project an impactful reality for the State University System. Our Industrial & Systems Engineering Department at UF is proud to have been a part of such a meaningful collaboration for Florida.”