April 16, 2012

University Eliminated from Sustainability Competition

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After Cornell was knocked out of an environmental “March Madness” competition, several faculty members expressed their determination to make improvements to the University’s campus, research programs and curriculum to increase the school’s sustainability efforts.

On March 12, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering was selected by Enviance, a software company that creates applications and websites for sustainability projects such as tracking greenhouse gas emissions, as one of the top 16 environmental undergraduate programs in the country. However, the University was not subsequently chosen as one of the top eight schools.

Colby College was ultimately chosen as the winner of the competition. The school was awarded $5,000 towards its enivornmental and sustainability department, according to a statement by Enviance.

According to Enviance’s website, the judging criteria included essays, pictures and video projects submitted by the contestants that showcased how they were promoting sustainability.

Cornell has achieved recognition from other sustainability-related organizations — on Jan. 30 the University received a gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) program. However, more needs to be done to improve Cornell’s “green” efforts, according to faculty members working in environmental sustainability fields.

According to Prof. Francis DiSalvo, chemistry, the director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, there are four “arenas” where Cornell is striving to be increasingly green: environmental scholarships and research, creating a more sustainable campus, sustainability-related curriculum, and public engagement. DiSalvo said connecting all four areas had been problematic in the past.

“Many of the efforts were not connected to each other and didn’t have any visibility internally [or] externally,” DiSalvo said. “The role we play is to connect all those activities together … mostly what we do within [the Atkinson Center] is seed good ideas that address problems sustainability so that people can get off the ground.”

According to DiSalvo, the Atkinson Center helps connect 300 Cornell faculty members from 64 departments across the University’s colleges to facilitate collaboration on sustainability efforts.

“There is no other organization at an American campus that I’m aware of that has that kind of connectivity,” he said. “We’ve got off to a good start — there’s lots more to be done, but we’re on the right path and I think that if we keep doing what we’re doing we’re going to rise in the [sustainability] ratings.”

According to Faculty Senate Chair Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology, Cornell’s STARS rating shows the need to incorporate more sustainability related course material into the University’s curriculum. While Cornell scored well on sustainability criteria related to on-campus innovation — such as using cold water from Cayuga Lake to control building temperature instead of air conditioning, eliminating the central heating plant’s use of coal and promoting bike use — the University’s curriculum did not fare as well.

“If you look at the STARS system, we’re getting most of our points from some of the other areas …  when you look at the education program, we’re not doing as much as many of the other institutions,” Chabot said. “We don’t have, for example, a sustainability element in our orientation for new students; we don’t have incentives for faculty to teach courses in sustainability; most of our majors don’t have sustainability courses.”

In April, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences approved new curriculum standards in the hopes of educating students on how to apply sustainability concepts to current and future environmental challenges. Still, Chabot said that a “missing piece” of sustainability efforts at Cornell is the lack of an administrative leader who oversees a broader adoption of such course work.

“It leaves it up to departments and colleges to do what they can,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s positive that’s happened, but there’s still a lot more growth to take place.”

Rebecca Macies ’14, co-president of Cornell’s branch of Kyoto NOW!, a group that advocates policy change in accordance with the 1997 United Nations Kyoto Protocol aimed at curbing global climate change, said that knowledge of sustainable practices was a valuable asset for students about to enter the job market.

“Having a basic knowledge of [sustainability] and how it applies to every single field is something really valuable that you can definitely take into the curriculum and into the workforce,” she said. “It is a huge emerging field.”

Original Author: Byron Kittle

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