November 18, 2011 | General

Sustainability In Higher Education

BioCycle November 2011, Vol. 52, No. 11, p. 36
AASHE’s 2011 Conference highlighted trends in both the operational and curriculum sides of integrating sustainability on college and university campuses.
Alice Kodama

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THE Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) evolved out of the Education for Sustainability Western Network (EfS-W), a project of Second Nature, a nonprofit that works with faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to help make the principles of sustainability fundamental to every aspect of higher education. According to Matt St. Clair, University of California (UC) system sustainability manager and one of the founding board members of AASHE, EfS-W recognized that sustainability in higher education was growing so quickly that a national organization was needed to encourage and support more schools. AASHE formed in 2005, originally with 35 members, and now has more than 1,100. Its mission includes sharing lessons and data on sustainability, increasing institutions’ operational efficiency and helping to engage students in a multidisciplinary teaching method that emphasizes the importance of sustainability in every subject.
“At EfS-W and in the early days of AASHE, there was a fair amount of attention to both the curriculum side and the operations side,” recalls Paul Rowland, Executive Director of AASHE. “The tricky thing was identifying the faculty who were engaging in sustainability on a campus. Over time, as campuses became more engaged with sustainability on the operations side, it was clearer who the advocates and contacts would be.” Schools found their specialty between operational efficiency and sustainability-focused curriculums.
The agenda at AASHE’s annual conference, held this year in Pittsburgh, highlighted both aspects of campus sustainability programs. Many of the students’ and staffs’ presentations were on operational changes to improve efficiency. Jiffy Vermylen, Stanford University’s sustainability coordinator, presented on the university’s initiatives to reduce energy in campus buildings through individual occupant behavior. The program is an “opt in” model in which building occupants are encouraged to set their own goals for reducing energy and other priorities for sustainability. Buildings that participated in the program saved between 8 and 20 percent of their electricity costs by making simple changes like using smart strips, setting computer to energy saving modes, putting lights and printers on timers and in some cases “delamping” (removing unnecessary light bulbs/fixtures in areas that are producing greater-than-needed illumination).
A session, led by Matt St. Clair and Lisa McNeilly from the University of California (UC) Berkeley and Sid England from UC Davis and titled Crisis into Opportunity: Can Sustainability Programs and Budget Cuts be Mutually Supportive?, offered powerful examples of how to convince administrations undergoing significant budget cuts to invest in money-saving sustainable changes. UC Davis, for example, saves $6 million annually through energy efficiency programs such as making existing HVAC (heating and cooling) systems more efficient and is looking to save another $3 million by upgrading lighting systems. The campus is constructing a new veterinary medicine building, and the university tasked a team including the School of Veterinary Medicine and the university’s Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability with the challenge of getting the facility up and running with no additional operational funds. The building is designed to be LEED Gold certified, so it will already have lower utility bills than the other structures on campus.
Other sessions discussed “edible landscaping,” a technique that reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides and regular mowing by replacing typical landscaping with vegetable gardens. (See Web Extra for BioCycle articles on campus composting and food production.) Maren Stumme-Diers is the sustainable foods educator for Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She and several students convinced their administration to let them turn a slightly hidden area of campus into a vegetable garden. They reached out to a local legend — vegetable photographer, and seed saver David Cavagnaro — to design the garden and help choose the crops. The garden combined hands-on learning with passive learning for visitors and became the pride of the campus as well as the highlight of many tours. It was so successful that the administration asked for a second garden plot, this time located on a more visible part of campus.
Integrating sustainability into the curriculum is approached at each school differently — some having specific sustainability degree offerings, some through integrating sustainability into every class, and others offering a required sustainability general education class. There are models to follow, such as Northern Arizona University. Paul Rowland of AASHE taught at Northern Arizona in the late 1990s. “…We had an organized faculty group well before the operations side acknowledged the importance of sustainability,” he says.
Some sessions at the conference focused on their curriculum changes. Michelle Best and Helen Cox from California State University, Northridge, presented findings from a class that did energy audits on local residences. The students learn how to read an electricity bill and simple techniques to reduce energy costs. Next, they met with local homeowners to help them understand their bills and make simple energy efficiency changes.
Some institutions are finding the curriculum change to be more challenging than making operational changes. Monty Hempel of University of Redlands, another founding board member of AASHE, says the move “…requires people to take ownership of the concept across the university. Teachers have to think, ‘How can I connect to the much bigger picture of sustainability?'”
Schools that already have integrated sustainability into their curriculum see their graduates taking jobs with sustainability departments in large corporations, cities and innovative nonprofits. Matt St. Clair rattled off a list of jobs that his fellow graduates from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources program have secured. One is the Sustainability Coordinator of Oakland, California; another is UC Merced’s Director for Energy and Sustainability. Irene Seliverstov is a member of Levi Strauss’s Social and Environmental Sustainability Group. Others went on to get PhDs, like Anne Short, who is now Boston University’s first Assistant Professor for Sustainability Science.
Key to creating more jobs under the sustainability umbrella is instilling the concept that sustainability is interdisciplinary, i.e., it is not just about improving the environment. Participation is required from every facet of the higher education spectrum — engineering, science, biology, business, communications, psychology, finance, etc. Sums up Hempel: “Environmental sustainability and sustainability cannot exist separately.”

Alice Kodama, a former BioCycle intern, covered the 2011 AASHE Conference and authored this report.

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