How higher ed rallies around the environment

Saint Leo University hosting summer sustainability conference where higher ed can share ideas
By: | February 21, 2020
An exchange of ideas around environmental initiatives will be the focus this summer when Saint Leo University in Florida hosts its first higher education sustainability conference.An exchange of ideas around environmental initiatives will be the focus this summer when Saint Leo University in Florida hosts its first higher education sustainability conference.

The environment is becoming a rallying cry for college faculty and administrators who want to collaborate to advance sustainability in the classrooms, on physical campuses and in surrounding communities.

Saint Leo University in Florida in on June 25-26 will host “Sustainability in Higher Education: A 2020 Vision for Teaching, Research, and Best Practices,” its first sustainability conference for teachers, professors, student advisors, graduate students and facilities directors who want to share ideas for teaching about the environment and how to campuses can operate more sustainably.

K-12 educators are also invited to attend.

“We want to share information and empower people to feel like they can take action and be part of the solution,” says Karen Hannel, an assistant humanities professor who is organizing the conference.


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The conference, which is currently seeking presentation proposals, will focus on three main areas: curriculum, research and campus activities.

Hannel says she hopes to bring together large institutions, which have more resources, and smaller schools, where faculty and staff may have more flexibility to act. As a private school, for example, Saint Leo isn’t as bound by state higher education regulations as public schools are, she adds.

Organizers also hope to help schools better coordinate all the environmental initiatives underway on their campuses so instruction can align with facilities work.

“We’ve got numerous faculty all over the university who are incorporating sustainability ideas, concepts and practices into their coursework,” says Laura Altfeld, a biologist and ecologist at Saint Leo who is helping to organize the conference. “We do have things going on on campus in energy efficiency and water use. We’d really like to be a bit more intentional and cohesive.”

Another goal is to help institutions “model what we teach,” Altfeld adds.


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For example, energy conversation projects, such as the installation of solar panels on campus buildings, lend credibility to environmental instruction in classrooms. “If we aren’t practicing sustainability and we’re teaching it, that’s an inconsistency that won’t go unnoticed,” Altfeld says.

Collaborating on climate change

Four Pennsylvania schools will reach carbon neutrality together thanks to a purchasing collective they’ve formed to buy solar power.

Dickinson College, Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Muhlenberg College will purchase the largest amount of solar power of any group of independent colleges in the nation, according to a statement released by the schools.

The schools’ leaders have signed a 15-year “virtual power purchase agreement” to buy energy generated by a 200+ acre solar farm in Texas. Such ventures have been rare in higher education, the schools said.

A partnership will enable all four institutions―Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College―to mitigate 100% of their emissions associated with electricity consumption.

A partnership will enable all four institutions―Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College―to mitigate 100% of their emissions associated with electricity consumption.

The Rachel Carson Campus Network is a five-year-old network of about 50 colleges and universities that connects institutions, faculty and communities around environmental projects and research.

The network also has fellows embedded on seven campuses who work on projects such as solar power, community gardens, food pantries and water pollution. And in North Carolina, for example, the network works on 13 campuses organizing student involvement in regional issues such as the climate impacts of factory hog farming. The students, among other activities, have lobbied for environmental regulations in Raleigh, the state capital.


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Elsewhere in North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast, the network is guiding students who want to prevent the clear-cutting of forests for wood pellet production, an energy product known as woody biomass, says Robert K. Musil CEO of Rachel Carson Council, the environmental nonprofit that runs the network.

The network has also developed curriculum to help faculty integrate environmental science into their courses, Musil says.

“We’re linking students with faculty because we’re looking to build a long-range network,” Musil says. “We’re looking to create something that has staying power.”