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Campuses give 'green' that old college try

Driven by their students, schools are teaching and learning the concrete values of sustainability.

Philadelphia University student Stefanie Loglisci gets details from Tom Schrand about the environmental sustainability major.
Philadelphia University student Stefanie Loglisci gets details from Tom Schrand about the environmental sustainability major.Read moreMICHAEL LEVIN / Inquirer Staff Photographer

A "green" conscience is sweeping the nation's colleges and universities and manifesting itself in virtually every aspect of campus life, from academics to operations, from the trash can to the president's office.

As thousands in the region return to classes starting today, they'll find "green" roofs being installed on their dorms, receive reusable water bottles, and see corn growing on their quad.

They'll be able to enroll in new environmental majors and minors, participate in bike-share programs, and take showers that waste less water. They'll meet campus "sustainability coordinators," learn of new committees looking to make operations more environmentally efficient, and hear of studies to measure a campus' so-called carbon footprint.

Some will have to carry their lunches without a tray - a move to reduce waste. They will get lessons on climate change and live in buildings increasingly powered by the sun and the wind.

Higher education has found a higher calling: Sustainability is a top priority for many university presidents across the country, according to a survey released last week by the National Wildlife Federation and other groups.

"It reflects a change in the wider society and the public attention on issues of global warming and the rising cost of energy," said Judith Walton, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a Kentucky-based group that has grown from 40 college members to more than 550. "Much of it is driven by students. They're seeing their future in this."

Congress last month approved funding for universities to offer more academic programs in sustainability and improve energy efficiency on campus. Schools in this region aren't waiting for the grants, which aren't likely to begin until 2010 and could end up less than the projected $50 million total.

At Drexel University - which rolled out solar-powered recycling and litter bins in July, installed low-flow showerheads in the gyms, and requires incoming freshmen to take a lesson on climate change - officials attributed the green sweep to a confluence of events.

"Al Gore's efforts have had a significant role to play. And it's Katrina. It's haze over Beijing. It's more hybrid cars. They all start to pile up, and after a while it's hard not to pay attention," said Carl "Tobey" Oxholm III, executive vice president and chief of staff.

Jameson Detweiler, 22, an engineering graduate student at Drexel, is working with a group to revamp an old fraternity house into a laboratory for better living, including conservation.

Detweiler has become increasingly concerned about global warming, he said, and was one of about 70 students who met with Drexel officials in March to urge more action.

"It's a very important issue to me," said Detweiler, of Lancaster. "I just know we're going to run out of stuff, and that's not going to be good for anybody."

Philadelphia University is starting a bachelor's program in environmental sustainability, a rarity in the nation, officials boast. The program has five enrollees for this fall.

"Our program is going to focus on solutions, working with companies and organizations to create sustainable approaches to what they do," said Tom Schrand, associate dean of the university's School of Liberal Arts. "It's definitely a job market that's going to increase in the future as more communities, more businesses try to tackle the idea of sustainability. We want to train people for those [leadership] jobs."

Freshman Jenny Clay grew up in a small town in Berks County, surrounded by farmland and in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, an environmental sanctuary that focuses on preserving birds of prey. She wants to make a career out of preserving the environment.

"I love it where I live, and I don't want to see it developed," said Clay, 18.

Philadelphia University appears to be in the minority. The National Wildlife Federation survey of more than 1,000 campuses said universities were lagging in developing academic programs on sustainability. Very few require students to take a course in that area.

Other area campuses reported having programs in the works. Muhlenberg College in Allentown, for example, is developing an interdisciplinary minor in sustainability studies. Villanova University will launch a master's-degree program in sustainable engineering in 2009.

At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., students will return to see corn more than six feet tall growing in the spacious quad. The school calls it "corn on the quad" and has mounted a "corn cam" on the library. Freshmen are reading a book that traces corn and other food from the source to the table, and other disciplines will include lessons on the project.

"We've made this an educational project, not a gimmick," said Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the college.

At some schools, more efficient building and operations have taken center stage.

Rutgers University is building a solar-energy facility to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. It's also replacing light fixtures and water lines with more energy-efficient versions to save $6 million to $7 million a year.

Swarthmore College is installing a green roof on a residence hall, the third of its kind on campus. The soil and vegetation cover will better use storm-water runoff and provide good insulation.

Dining halls are a focus for reducing waste. Villanova will go trayless in one of its three dining halls this fall. Neumann College will run "Trayless Tuesdays."

Next week, Ursinus College will start a bike-share program. Senior Laura Ng, who has had a passion for environmental issues, will oversee it. Students will pay $5 for membership and can sign out a bike for as long as 24 hours.

"I was reading that about 40 percent of pollution coming from the car happens in the first two minutes or first two miles," said Ng, 21, a math major from Phoenixville. "If we could avoid those short trips, we could eliminate a lot of pollution from cars and vehicles."

Such efforts could become increasingly important as universities try to reduce their carbon footprints. The University of Pennsylvania leads the nation's universities in the purchase of green power, specifically wind power, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Penn president Amy Gutmann was the first Ivy League president to sign a national "climate commitment," to measure its greenhouse-gas emissions and offer a plan to reduce them by 2009, among other steps.

"This is one of the issues that is universally supported by students and faculty," Gutmann said. "People today get it, that we all have to do our part to make a difference."

It's the Ecology, Smarty

Swarthmore College:

Installing a soil-and-vegetation roof on a residence hall to use storm-water runoff better and insulate the building.

Eastern University: Made main campus 100 percent powered by wind.

Rutgers University: Building a solar-energy facility.

Drexel University: Installing a "bio wall" - an interior wall of plants for energy efficiency and improved air quality - in its new Integrated Sciences Building.

Bucknell University: Installing an "anaerobic digester" to convert food waste from dining halls into compost, with the methane by-product to be used to power a dining-hall stove.

Moore College of Art and Design: Using more environmentally friendly materials, such as "mineral-spirits-based Gamsol" for cleaning brushes.

University of Pennsylvania: Training a group of upperclassmen to be leaders in raising environmental awareness.

Rowan University: Recycles cardboard boxes from move-in day. In 2007, three tons of cardboard was recycled.

Harcum College: Redesigned the student lounge using soy-based paint, recyclable flooring and recycled furniture.

Lafayette College: Distributed reusable water bottles to students.

Ursinus College: Started a bike-share program.

Princeton University: Launched a multiyear effort by students to improve water quality and ecological balance across the campus and within its watershed.

Lehigh University: Began an advisory group to identify ways to improve the university's impact on the environment and study the issue nationally and globally.

Neumann College: Started "Trayless Tuesdays" in the dining hall.

Villanova University: Sponsoring the "Year of Sustainability" in 2008-09 to focus on improving the academic study of sustainability throughout the curriculum.

Philadelphia University: Started a major in environmental sustainability.

Muhlenberg College: Started a minor in sustainability studies.

Arcadia College: Started a course in sustainability, with a focus on contemporary art and environmental science.

Bucks County Community College: Added courses on sustainable building and seminars on how to cut energy costs and reduce carbon emissions.

St. Joseph's University: Started a course called "Global Change Biology: The Science and the Societal Impacts."