Sustaining New Ideas
Students in new course brainstorm ways to reduce Rochester’s environmental footprint.
What if Rochester’s residence halls provided live energy feedback so students could better monitor their own energy use? Or what if Danforth Dining Center were redesigned for more sustainable practices? Or could the University’s CoGeneration plant’s hot-water load be maximized?
Those are just a few of the ideas generated by students this spring as part of a new course called Solving UR’s Environmental Footprint.
While the students’ suggestions are largely hypothetical, the experience was quite practical, say students like Seth Stein ’10, a history major from Yardley, Pa.
“It affected me in a way no other class has before,” says Stein.
Created with support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation through the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the course was conceived as a form of research, to test whether entrepreneurship could be taught to undergraduates experientially. To probe that hypothesis, students in the course were asked to produce business-driven analyses of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission at the University.
The course brought together four instructors, each with a different area of expertise: Ben Ebenhack, senior lecturer in chemical engineering; Jack Fraser, deputy director of the Office of Technology Transfer and an adjunct instructor in the Simon School; Katrina Korfmacher, research assistant professor in environmental medicine at the Medical Center; and Maryann McCabe, senior lecturer in anthropology.
Students in the course also came from an array of majors. Environmental studies is built around multidisciplinary problem solving, Korfmacher says, and “students saw that working together across disciplines can be very powerful.”
Annalise Kjolhede ’10, an environmental science major from Cooperstown, N.Y., agrees. “Sustainable development affects all spheres,” she says. “You have to think about how things work in different spheres, and you find the overlap.”
Through readings, discussions, and guest lectures from a range of campus administrators and staff members—on topics such as transportation, parking, the power plant, and budgets—students not only studied issues of sustainability, but also grappled with how to make feasible, consequential changes in a highly complex institution.
The course examined the technical issues of improving sustainability and the cultural and social issues that underpin change, says McCabe. “Students looked at people’s perspectives on sustainability: their beliefs, their values, what motivates them.”
Investigating those motivations was an exciting dimension of the course for Gerald Abt ’08, a mechanical engineering major from Cleveland and an active member of Grassroots, the University’s student environmental action and awareness group. He’ll return to campus in the fall as a Take 5 student to pursue a project titled “Human Motivation for Consumption.”
“At the end of the day, I want to be an engineer,” Abt says, “but I want to understand why people do the things they do.”
As the culmination of the course, students developed business plans recommending specific steps the University could take to improve sustainability and presented their findings to staff members in the relevant areas and to the new University Council for Sustainability (see box), so that their suggestions can be considered for implementation.
The practical relevance of their efforts was critical to the energy and enthusiasm students brought to the course, says Ebenhack. “It made their work applied, and not just an exercise.”
In fact, some projects may already be headed for adoption: By the end of the summer, for example, Information Technology aims to implement the computer lab portion of the effort by Abt and fellow students to reduce computer energy consumption.
“There really is a large group of faculty and staff who are interested in change—but there are budgetary constraints,” says Gordon Jaquith ’09, a Fayetteville, N.Y., native and an economics major. “But a university is a great place to start things like this, because they’re so forward-thinking.”
Rayna Oliker ’10, a double major in sustainability and religion from Boston, calls pursuing “green” changes at the University fulfilling. “It’s a really great thing for students to say, ‘This is my legacy.’ And I think it’s important for someone trying to figure out how they’ll fit into society and what contribution they can make.”
Seeing the ways ideas emerge and develop, and finding the right people to bring fresh ideas to was enlightening, says Kjolhede. “It really shed light on the work entrepreneurs have to do.”
After the semester’s end, Stein and other group members met with Laurel Contomanolis, director of residential life, who agreed to their idea of introducing “eco-representatives”—freshmen who would educate residents of each hall about their energy use and encourage involvement in campus sustainability efforts.
“For what other class do you still work after the final?” Stein laughs.
“And still get excited about it!” Oliker adds.
“If we can effect change here,” says Stein, “who says we can’t do it for the state, the U.S., or the world?”