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Campus Sustainability: An Interdisciplinary Effort

As part of Dartmouth College's renewed commitment to sustainability and the environment, the institution is focusing on coordinating the efforts of its undergraduate community and its graduate schools.

Ever since Dartmouth College hired its first sustainability coordinator in 2005, the institution has been on a mission to reduce the overall environmental impact of its campuses, students, faculty, and administrators. Earlier this year, Dartmouth renewed that commitment at its Sustainability Summit, where 60 individuals from undergraduate programs and graduate schools gathered to hear presentations and work on coordinating efforts.

One topic discussed at the gathering was the growth of current and development of future sustainability projects that share common goals and allow for greater collaboration. "The event was an attempt to try to increase teamwork between the college and the graduate schools," said Marissa Knodel, sustainability programs specialist. "We share the same space, but we don't always coordinate our sustainability efforts. That was the whole point of the summit."

The schools are in "environmental sync" when it comes energy use across campus, for example, but aren't always on the same page when it comes to recycling education and composting, according to Knodel, who is already seeing increased collaboration thanks to that February meeting of the minds.

In April, for example, Dartmouth College and its graduate schools pooled their efforts to develop several Earth Week events. The entities have also been working together to grow the institution's "sustainability move out" program. Through that plan, the school collects items from students who are moving out at the end of the spring term and then sells the goods back (at a reduced cost) to new students the next fall. That move out program has historically focused on undergraduates, said Knodel, but was expanded this year to include the school's graduate community.

Another green initiative currently under development at Dartmouth will find the Tuck School of Business and Thayer Engineering School working in tandem to help bring viable ideas developed by engineering students into reality, with the help of the business students. "We're going to come up with a competition--complete with judges and prizes--that will find students taking a sustainability project out of the engineering school," said Knodel, "and using a solid business plan to implement it."

Knodel said she sees that engineering-business connection as yet another way to get Dartmouth's various colleges on the same sustainability page and said the competition will likely kick off in the fall of 2010. Projects addressing energy metering, renewable energy, or more efficient automobiles, she said, don't always make it to the patenting stage. By adding business students to the mix, Knodel said, the projects stand a better chance of actually being put into action. "It's a natural connection."

Dartmouth's green efforts go beyond its recent summit and new focus on collaboration between its schools. It conducted two sustainability self-assessments in 2009, for example, and has since developed two draft chapters for a "sustainability roadmap" that specifically addresses the institution's energy usage, transportation, and waste management. On that roadmap are initiatives such as increased composting, waste minimization, centralized trash management, and single-stream recycling, to name a few.

Knodel said those upcoming initiatives fall under a larger umbrella that's been open since 2008, and that addresses the institution's long-term goal of reducing its greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2030 (compared to its 2005 levels). A $330,000 grant from the New Hampshire Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Fund is helping Dartmouth achieve that goal. With the funding, the school is currently installing energy meters in every building on campus. Once in place, the tools monitor how much electricity is being used and "help us quickly address spikes, system glitches, and overuse," said Knodel.

"These meters allow us to address the issue right away, rather than having to wait until the end of the month when the bill comes," said Knodel, who estimated that half of Dartmouth's buildings are already equipped with the meters, which will all be installed by fall 2010.

The institution is also using GreenLight, a computer program that collects energy data for display on computer monitors. Using a mix of human psychology and data comprehension, the program displays user-friendly graphics (like polar bears floating happily on an ice floe when energy usage is low or struggling in the water when it's high) to communicate the energy information to users, according to Knodel.

To institutions of higher education that want to emulate Dartmouth's green commitment, Knodel said to remember that sustainability is a process and a way of thinking, and not just a series of disjointed actions. "For a sustainability program to work well, there has to be collaboration between all of the groups that are involved," said Knodel, who added that support from the institution's leadership team is crucial. "You can only do so much at the grassroots level, but until an initiative is turned into a policy by the decision makers, it's not necessarily a sustainable program."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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