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Math Class Creates Model for Food Packing Plant in Nepal

Math and computer science students worked with Feed My Starving Children and Venture to digitally model a food packing plant in Nepal.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist

December 12, 2018 | 3 p.m.

Students in Professor of Mathematics Patrice Conrath’s Operations Research class worked with Minnesota nonprofits Feed My Starving Children and Venture to design a food packing plant in Nepal.

Students in Professor of Mathematics Patrice Conrath’s Operations Research class worked with Minnesota nonprofits Feed My Starving Children and Venture to design a food packing plant in Nepal.

From the outside looking in, a fall semester Operations Research class looked just like any other—math and science students gazing intently into the faces of their computers, quietly puzzling over how to make the numbers work. Like students who came before them, they could have been working on modeling solutions for the Office of Financial Aid, or coming up with new serving plans for the Monson Dining Center. Instead, they focused on finding a solution for a client farther away from home—about 7,000 miles farther—in a remote village in Nepal.

Using cutting-edge simulation software and modeling techniques, the students designed layout and process models for a food packing plant that would serve as both a jobsite and an education center, combatting the combination of poverty and hunger that forces parents to sell their daughters into sex trafficking.

“Our students learned a lot and their eyes were opened to how their math and computer science skills can be used in the real world.”

— Professor of Mathematics Patrice Conrath

The opportunity came over a year ago through Millicent ’89 and Sonny Thweatt, who work as missionaries for Venture, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that raises funds in the United States to support justice and discipleship work abroad. They’re also the parents of JT Thweatt ’17, an applied physics major who happened to be enrolled in the Fall 2017 Operations Research class.

“It’s a crazy intersection of so many things,” says Professor of Mathematics Patrice Conrath, remembering the number of people who collaborated with them on the project. “It’s incredible what God has done and how much has lined up. It’s beyond anything a human could do.”

The class divided into three teams—data and statistics, logic and testing, and coding—each with a project manager and Conrath acting as CEO. The goal was to design a self-sustaining packing plant capable of distributing food to 1,000 people per month—which would require 6,768 MannaPacks per month. The teams considered space allocations, packing formations, and labor expectations as they calculated what would be needed to meet their goal, using real data from Feed My Starving Children and Venture.

“It became clear early on that the goal could be met,” says Thweatt, who led his classmates as a project manager. “So, from that point on it wasn’t ‘Can we do this?’ It was ‘How far can we go?’”

The answer? With 12 employees working for less than four hours per week, the plant could feed more than 2,000 people year-round. Because the Nepalese government prohibits genetically modified seeds, it is especially difficult for aid organizations to bring in packed food. That’s why the plant—which would include a farm with pigs, chickens, and a pond—could make such a difference in the everyday lives of the Nepalese people. Besides serving as a sustainable food source, the plant would also serve as a Bible school to help local people become leaders who make a difference in their villages.

“My ultimate purpose at Bethel is to equip students and help them learn how their unique gifts and talents can be utilized for kingdom work, especially when empowered by and submitted to the Holy Spirit.”

— Professor of Mathematics Patrice Conrath

Support for the project quickly grew bigger than the class. Sylvia Lease ’15, a former mathematics major who recently earned an M.S. in Business Analytics, spent a semester mastering the same software Conrath’s students were experimenting with and volunteered to come back and help during the last few days of the project. Other alumni, professors, friends, and family donated $1,900 to cover the cost of shelving in the packing plant. Although a corrupt builder has stalled the construction process, the funds will be used to help protect and educate girls freed from trafficking.

“Through this whole project, God’s hand has been so evident,” Thweatt says. “We firmly believe He’s working in this, and we hope this work can help save lives and make an impact in Nepal.”

At the end of the semester, Thweatt and Conrath compiled a report detailing their research and findings to serve as a resource for Feed My Starving Children and Venture as they continue to serve disadvantaged communities worldwide. “Our students learned a lot and their eyes were opened to how their math and computer science skills can be used in the real world,” Conrath says. “My ultimate purpose at Bethel is to equip students and help them learn how their unique gifts and talents can be utilized for kingdom work, especially when empowered by and submitted to the Holy Spirit.”

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