Students reach for STARS with sustainability projects

From the May 23 issue of On Campus News

by Meagan Hinther

The professors for a new undergraduate course offered through the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) said student projects are having direct impacts on the university's commitment to becoming a more environmentally sustainable campus.

Colin Laroque, professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and SENS, co-taught ENVS 401 Sustainability in Action this winter with assistant professor Philip Loring, also from SENS. The final requirement for the course involved teams working on projects that could help the U of S move up in its official sustainability rating - the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The STARS rating is administered through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure sustainability performance. The U of S currently has a bronze rating and has identified silver as its short-term goal.

 “Our students set out to take actions. We taught them [core sustainability concepts], guided them and expected them to take dramatic action with their projects,” remarked Laroque. “A few projects included identifying initiatives that would take the U of S STARS rating from a bronze to a silver.”

Loring added that the students picked the topics themselves and worked in class to identify possible areas of interest. They also reviewed the STARS ratings online to look for ideas. The Office of Sustainability developed the initial concept of student-led campus sustainability projects and showcased the presentations in a symposium at the end of March. They also played a key role in connecting students with the appropriate campus contacts.

 “Each group worked with people from campus, whether in facilities or grounds management or department offices, and were all well received,” said Loring. “It’s exciting – students identified several pathways that the university can take to get to a STARS silver [rating] with little to no new programs.”

Projects included opportunities for food waste composting at Marquis Hall, transitioning campus printing to recycled paper, and environmentally sustainable investment strategies the university could consider for its endowment fund.

The last two initiatives in particular generated interest from senior leaders, said Laroque. “Once Laura Kennedy, associate vice-president financial services and controller, heard about [our students], she came looking for their final report near the end of term. Armed with their report [on sustainable investing], she recently went to a U15 meeting with other financial services leaders to discuss this subject. The recycled photocopier paper team received buy-in from Mary Buhr, dean of Agriculture and Bioresources, who plans to start a pilot project next year.”

Although the students did remarkably well at identifying and outlining sustainability strategies, the projects were not without challenges.

“The biggest challenge that many groups faced was getting people on campus to recognize the value of incremental change – small steps toward solving big problems,” said Loring.