Sustainability office to revamp minor, research air travel cutback

Media Credit: Graeme Sloan | Contributing Photo Editor

Meghan Chapple, the director of the Office of Sustainability, said the office is trying to engage more students, faculty and staff in eco-friendly projects.

The sustainability office is trying to engage more students, faculty and staff in eco-friendly projects – from enrolling more freshmen in the sustainability minor to cutting back on faculty air travel.

Officials announced at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday that the Office of Sustainability is employing a series of new strategies to involve students and faculty in pro-environmental efforts. Officials said they are revamping the sustainability minor to involve more freshmen in the program and are reaching out to faculty and administrators to cut down on unnecessary air travel.

“There’s so much potential for GW to have a bigger impact on the minds of students as they graduate from here, so what we try to do is create a place where they can live and learn sustainably,” Meghan Chapple, the director of the Office of Sustainability, said.

Chapple said the University has reduced its carbon emissions by 22 percent in nearly a decade and is on track to reduce emissions by 40 percent in 2025 and 100 percent in 2040. She said on top of the University’s solar panels and 11 LEED-certified buildings, the next step to reaching their goal is to reduce air travel by faculty and students.

She said when faculty and staff travel or when students study abroad, their flights are major contributors to GW’s carbon footprint.

“We don’t want to reduce the exposure that faculty have at conferences, we don’t want to reduce study abroad, but we do want to find a way to offset those emissions through planting more trees, and there are other offset programs out there,” she said.

Chapple said reducing air travel will require University funding, which the office hasn’t yet obtained.

On top of interactions with faculty and administrators, sustainability officials said they are also engaging with the community at large – especially students – to review the role of the office and its successes and pitfalls.

The office will embark on a listening tour – including a luncheon on Oct. 26 and open office hours throughout the year – to discuss projects and goal-setting with students and other departments, Chapple said.

She said the findings from the listening tour will be compiled in the spring and include information about what the office has accomplished during its nine-year tenure, as well as how the University could better engage with staff and students to improve schoolwide sustainability endeavors.

Officials and student leaders have collaborated several times over the past year to help campus community members make more sustainable choices. Officials partnered with Student Association leaders last year to launch a campaign to save 1 million pieces of paper and establish a $2 million sustainable investment fund.

Officials said most students involved with sustainability efforts are upperclassmen – creating an opening for administrators to attract more freshmen and engage with them through their four years on GW’s campus. Officials said they are revamping the sustainability minor – which first launched in 2012 – to better accommodate first-year students.

Tara Scully, the director of the sustainability minor and an assistant professor of biology, said she plans to send out surveys to alumni and students enrolled in the minor to gauge feedback about core sustainability courses to determine how to better advertise the minor to underclassmen.

Students enrolled in the 18-credit minor must take courses like Introduction to Sustainability and choose from one of three tracks – Society and Sustainability, Environment/Earth Systems, and Policy, Organization and Leadership.

“We are going to see where we need to improve the coursework and then that will relate to assessing the program itself, determining where there are gaps in courses and getting feedback from students,” she said.

She said she plans to set aside about 50 percent of introductory class spots for freshmen in core sustainability courses to help make the program less “top-heavy.”

The minor graduates about 60 students each year and currently enrolls about 164 students, Scully said during a presentation to the Faculty Senate Friday. There has been a roughly 66 percent enrollment increase in the minor since 2014.

“This happens a lot in programs because we don’t force students to declare their major right away, but we can do things to manipulate the system a little bit and that’s setting aside those seats for freshmen and sophomores, so they can get into the introduction class,” Scully said.

Max Gelber, the program manager for the sustainability minor, said officials will take a “critical look” at the number of seats taken up by each class year before creating a detailed plan about how to better engage underclassmen in the program.

“Right now, it’s really important to amp up recruitment to freshmen and sophomores to make sure everyone is aware that the sustainability minor is here to stay,” he said.

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