Sustainability 101

Using the Community as a Classroom, Colleges are Rewriting the Standards for Environmental Education

At American colleges, education is found all over: the computer room at 2 a.m.; athletic practice; the chemistry lab; even the local bar on Thursday nights. The lessons are as specific as the inner workings of a squid and as general as how to get along with your roommate. But a more experiential approach to learning is placing the student and the campus in a new environmental context and—as it gains momentum across the United States—is giving an entirely new meaning to higher education.

Allegheny College’s French Creek Environmental Education Project gets Pennsylvania high school students out to monitor water quality.
Courtesy of Allegheny College

The students of today are grappling with more than traditional 10-page papers and final exams. They’re testing the lead levels in local grade schools, transforming college land with native plants, and developing databases to track acid rain. More and more often, their classes are held in buildings powered by solar panels and treated by graywater systems. After they leave class, these same students are devising campaigns to save hardwood forests, and move incinerators out of their communities.

As the priorities of “the real world” expand to include issues of resource conservation, global warming and environmental justice, no longer are basic biology and better campus citizenry considered sufficient preparation. “Students are excited for innovative opportunities at colleges around the country, and eager to respond to the environmental crisis,” says James Pittman, who first founded the North American Alliance for Green Education (NAAGE) as his senior project at Prescott College in Arizona. “The question is whether institutions will be able to respond to the call.”

Across the Disciplines

And the answer is rippling through curriculum nationwide: Leaving their textbooks behind, students in an environmental justice course at the University of Redlands in Southern California entered a Latino neighborhood to investigate whether a battery factory was being a good environmental neighbor; at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, the French Creek Environmental Education Project joins college students with classes from 33 regional K-12 schools to study the quality of the local watershed; a student-conducted audit of the waste stream at Flathead Valley Community College in northwest Montana resulted in the school’s membership in the energy-conserving Green Star program.

A class at Middlebury College in Vermont drew up suggestions for the construction of a local elementary school that is now one of the most ecologically sound in the country. For Dr. Nan Jenks-Jay, director of environmental affairs at the college, the definition of environmental education is evolving. “For the last several years, students have been using the campus and the surrounding communities as a laboratory, to apply the lessons they’re learning in the classroom,” she says.

But judging by the Blueprint for a Green Campus drawn up in 1994 at the Campus Earth Summit at Yale University, excellence in environmental classes alone is not enough. The 465 students, faculty and staff from 22 countries, six continents and 50 states who attended this landmark event recommended integrating environmental knowledge into all subjects. Green values are “not just something for tree huggers,” says Daniel Einstein, director of environmental management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They are a way of engaging the world that can be incorporated into all disciplines.”

Courtesy of Prescott College

The goal is to eventually make just and sustainable action instinctive, regardless of one’s major. At the forefront of that vision is an organization whose name, not surprisingly, is Second Nature. Through training, consulting and a vast database of resources, the nonprofit group works with individual schools and seven different consortiums, including NAAGE, to embed environmental awareness into all aspects of college life, and make it the basis of the whole educational experience.

The result is being slowly realized at schools like Georgia Tech, which, already well known for its eco-options, has committed itself to taking the “elective” out of environmental citizenry by moving the concepts of sustainability into the core curriculum. That’s also happening at Northern Arizona University (NAU) , where “you don’t have to take a traditional environmental science course to find out about the environment,” says Dr. Paul Rowland, NAU’s former coordinator of environmental education. More than 125 professors in a multitude of disciplines teach environmental perspectives in their courses.

Carnegie Mellon’s Green Design Initiative incorporates over 50 graduate and undergraduate courses from engineering to the fine arts to create processes that don’t sacrifice the quality of a product or the environment. And then there are a few campuses, like the New College Santa Rosa Campus in California, devoted entirely to creating a new model of sustainable living. Graduates from this program receive a Bachelors or Masters of Arts in Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community.

Anthony Cortese, a former dean at Tufts University, and founder and president of Second Nature, warns the challenge of greening education “is that its momentum is not yet fast enough to keep up with the increased population, consumption of resources and decline of living systems.” And the result of graduates who don’t understand their relationship with nature, he says, is “inefficient use of energy and resources, pollution and waste, urban sprawl, destruction of forests, loss of topsoil, depletion of water…the list goes on. We have a long way to go.”

Some schools—and some disciplines—are still notably behind. A paltry 100 of 700 business and management schools even offer courses on the interface with and the environment, let alone require them. American medical students receive an average of only six hours (not credit hours) of training in environmental medicine during four years of medical school. And, finally, how can environmental education really gain momentum, when no one is teaching the teachers? Of American teachers’ colleges, less than 10 percent require a course in environmental education at the elementary or secondary levels.

That’s not to say a few exemplary programs aren’t breaking new ground. Par for the course in the Science and Environmental Education Program at the Antioch New England Graduate School are two internships—one in a self-contained classroom and the other with an environmental teaching focus. Graduates of this program are not only eligible for elementary teaching certification, but for careers as educational directors in nature centers and environmental organizations, museum educators, curriculum developers and park naturalists.

Courtesy of Northland College

The Consortium for Environmental Education in Medicine (CEEM) is working to introduce green perspectives to medical education. Recently incorporated into Second Nature, CEEM provides resources such as consulting, course development and workshops, focusing on subjects like the impacts of global climate change on human health, and infectious disease patterns. One participant in a 1995 workshop at Tufts commented, “As a medical student, this w

as by far the most rewarding experience in my development of an environmental career.”

In October, The World Resources Institute released the report Beyond Grey Pinstripes: Preparing MBAs for Social and Environmental Stewardship (the on-line version is at www.wri.org) . It evaluated 66 accredited graduate schools on the integration of the natural environment with business decision-making topics. Of the nine schools considered to be at the cutting-edge, all organize conferences with a green focus, such as Cornell’s seminar on Sustainable Development. Eight are part of a larger university-wide environmental institute, like the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. And seven, including George Washington University which offers a focus in eco-tourism, have innovative concentrations and joint degrees.

A University-Sized Footprint

But simply changing the curriculum isn’t enough. “If the students are learning in class about the environment and how to act responsibly, and the university through its buildings, its operations and investments is unsustainable, then they’re sending a very subtle but effective message that says ‘do what I say but not what I do,’” says Cortese. “Practicing what they preach is extremely important.”

With this realization, and 14 million new students each year, campuses are taking a step back to look at the mark they themselves are making on the global environment, and recognizing that it’s not always a positive one. By virtue of size alone, colleges and universities have a huge impact on the world around them. They use massive amounts of oil, gas, electricity, water and chemicals, generating substantial amounts of solid and hazardous wastes. They spend $185 billion on operations each year, which is greater than the Gross Domestic Product of all but 20 countries. And, like George Washington University, they pour money into as many as 26,000 vendors for everything from food and office equipment to construction materials.

According to Green Investment, Green Return, a report released in 1998 by the Campus Ecology Program of the National Wildlife Federation, investing in environmentally friendly standards is not only responsible, it’s cost-effective. Profiling 23 projects, the report revealed savings ranging from $1,000 to $9 million per year. These 15 colleges and universities saved almost $17 million annually by making changes that not only positively affected the planet, but the bottom line as well. Multiplied by the 3,700 institutions of higher learning in the United States, savings could quickly add up to over $2.6 billion a year.

These staggering figures are not the only, or even the most significant benefits to campus greening, however. In many cases, “cost savings are a very powerful motivator,” acknowledges Sarah Hammond Creighton, author of Greening the Ivory Tower, a detailed guide to campus makeovers for faculty, students and staff. “But there are a lot of decisions, too, that people make because they’re the right decisions.”

Courtesy of Green Mountain College

The authors of the Campus Ecology report point out that if each of these campuses were to conserve only a tenth of the water Columbia University did in a recent retrofit, U.S. water consumption would be reduced by over 22 billion gallons a year. Likewise, if a tenth of the carbon dioxide no longer emitted by Cornell University, thanks to public transportation programs, were reduced nationwide, over 2.4 billion more pounds of the greenhouse gas would be taken out of the atmosphere.

Julian Keniry, manager of the Campus Ecology Program, says that helping pave the way to a greener campus are better markets, a wider variety of recycled products and reductions in price. “On the technology side there’s been a lot of improvement that makes environmental performance more cost effective and easier to do,” says Keniry. “On the practice side, there’s so much more precedent for campus environmental responsibility now. Ten years ago you were hard pressed to get a case study about a campus that was recycling. Now you can easily put your fingers on examples of campuses dramatically reducing their hazardous waste, eliminating new parking spaces, using natural gas and electric cars for their vehicles, restoring the landscape, providing habitat and conserving water.”

For instance, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, buys fresh, organically grown food from a co-op of local farmers, and all of its post- and pre-consumer food waste is either composted or donated to two local homeless shelters. The Washington State Department of Wildlife actually certified the campus of Seattle University a wildlife sanctuary, thanks to alternative landscaping and integrated pest management that all but eliminated pesticide use. And for products flowing in and out of the three Rutgers University campuses in New Jersey, procurement contracts first stipulate that the goods meet strict environmental standards, and that the vendor minimize or remove wastes.

Late last year, Tufts University announced that it would meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions seven percent below the 1990 level by 2010. (Currently, Tufts is four percent above.) The decision was motivated by a great deal of frustration at the national level and a lack of government leadership to address the issue of climate change, says Kelly Simms, a project coordinator and graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “If we don’t start implementing the Protocol now, we won’t meet it and it will be too late,” Simms says. “But if we lead the way on the university level, perhaps the leaders in Washington will follow.”

Courtesy of Bates College

Another project setting standards for sustainability was recently unveiled on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio. The 260 students who were involved in researching the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies have graduated with an understanding of what it takes to create a sustainable building: one that generates more electricity than it uses, discharges no contaminated water, uses no toxic materials and is surrounded by landscape that promotes biological diversity. Says David Orr, the Oberlin professor whose class of 25 students first set the high standards, “Education that builds on solving real problems requires…[overcoming] the outmoded idea that learning occurs exclusively in classrooms, laboratories and libraries.”

What the Syllabus Left Out

Some students are realizing that there are a few valuable lessons just not offered in school. Merriah Fairchild, a member of the student arm of the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and a senior at the University of Oregon, believes there is “tremendous power stemming from the optimism and enthusiasm on campus, and from studying with professors who are experts on environmental issues. But there’s still a lack of sense of how to apply those lessons.”

To help focus this energy, students are finding a valuable resource in the strong network of student-run organizations with chapters cropping up on campuses nationwide, and in programs like Green Corps, which teaches recent college graduates how to coordinate and lead campaigns. “For the last decade, volunteerism has been a way in which students have expressed interest in their community,” says Leslie Samuelrich, cofounder of Green Corps, “but more and more young people are realizing that while direct

service meets an immediate need, political organizing is the key to lasting change. Unfortunately, the skills of running a press conference and building a coalition aren’t taught at the university, but they are the building blocks of being students activists.”

Samuelrich says the opposition, whether the timber industry or the local incinerator, are growing increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to promote their agendas. But as a result of advanced technology, training programs and national networking, students are also becoming more sophisticated in their own campaigns, says Andrew Pearson, the national coordinator for the Student Environmental Action Coalition. They’re using the kinds of tactics, Pearson says, that “make administration and campus professors blink. All of a sudden, students who were traditionally thought of as wishy-washy, jumping from one issue to the next, are saying they are willing to dig in for the long haul, do the nitty-gritty work because they know that’s the way they’ll be able to impact change.”

Courtesy of Warren Wilson College

And increasingly, the changes that students are after reflect growing global concerns: from clean water campaigns and right-to-know laws to wilderness protection and the effects of world trade. And professors aren’t the only ones beginning to take notice: A concerned Ford Motor Company executive recently placed a call to the coordinators of Cool the Planet, a student-led campaign to divest university funds from the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) . A corporate alliance, including all the domestic automakers, GCC recently funded a $13 million ad campaign against the Kyoto Protocol. Ingrid Chapman, a sophomore at the University of Washington, is optimistic that “if Ford is starting to get scared of what we’re doing, it may be good incentive for more corporations to drop out [of the GCC].”

“Students are starting to think about the root causes of a lot of problems, and realize there are some bad players who should clean up their acts,” says Andy McDonald, who is coordinating a full-fledged job boycott for a coalition of student groups, carefully aimed to put pressure on the worst environmental offenders. A list of specific demands will be drawn up for each of 12 companies, chosen to represent a variety of sectors on the basis of their environmental track record, and level of on-campus recruitment. Until the offending policies or practices have been changed to student satisfaction, the employer’s pool of ready applicants will be dramatically reduced (if the boycott goal of signing up half a million students at over 1,000 campuses nationwide is met).

More now than ever, says Bekka Economopoulis, an organizer for ECOnference 2000, where the boycott was launched on October 15, “students have the ability to exert leverage over what they want the future and the workplace to look like, rather than drop their values by the wayside at graduation to enter the real world and make a buck. This is the lowest we’ve seen unemployment for the last 30 years; it’s a great opportunity for us to take idealism through the campus quad and into the labor market.” With a new generation of students learning to fight corporate polluters, build environmental partnerships and live sustainable lifestyles, that market may never be the same.

Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

JENNIFER BOGO is associate editor of E.