By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Want to know what’s going on at the nation’s greenest colleges?
Just follow the young adults in the flannel shirts and rubber boots. No, those aren’t the latest fashion trends. That’s farm attire, practical togs for students plowing the land and exploring nearby swamps, streams and forests as part of their sustainability program.
Look more closely and you’ll find undergrads tilling the soil with oxen at Green Mountain College, processing grapes at University of California, Davis, getting in touch with their inner Thoreau in the Adirondacks via St. Lawrence University and wandering like John Muir across vast acreages of green space at Stanford and Cornell.
“The pendulum has really swung back to the age of these kids grandparents or great grandparents,” said Avital Binshtock, lifestyle editor of Sierra magazine, which just released its 5th annual Cool Schools rankings identifying the top green campuses.
“They’ve taken up knitting. They want to have chickens in their backyard and learn how to plant a plot of land.”
Grandparents, yes. But even moms and dads reared in the 1960s and ‘70s might recognize a lot of what’s going on as a renewal of the back-to-nature movement they participated in when “ecology” was the catchall term. Today’s young people, though, may be even deeper in the, um, compost, as they follow their professors into the field, literally, to take part in academic courses in sustainable land use, food production and green energy generation.
This modern tilting toward more earthy classes is just one part of a matrix of changes taking place as campuses try to improve their carbon and food footprints, move to more efficient energy use and attract the top students, who are increasingly looking at whether prospective schools are walking a green path.
Binshtock, who oversaw the 2011 Cool Schools project ranking 118 campuses for their climate-cooling practices, says research from multiple sources shows that a university’s commitment to sustainability is part of what students consider in selecting a school.
And once on campus, today’s students are not shy about demanding increased academic offerings as well as more eco-friendly operations. If they don’t like what they see, she said, “they get activist about it.”
That means schools that already are going green are impelled to transform themselves even further, like the University of Washington, which claimed the No. 1 spot in the 2011 rankings with its three farms, collection of LEED Gold-certified buildings and greener energy program relying on hydropower.
Not all universities are moving as swiftly to change, Binshtock said, but at many campuses there is a “perfect cocktail” of student desire for sustainability both in the curriculum and in operations, which is reinforced by compatible faculty and administrative goals, Binshtock said.
That’s resulted in a blossoming of sustainability course offerings and the growth of the nature- immersive courses, as well as the expansion of organic and local food offerings in cafeterias and changes in infrastructure.
Several of the schools at the top of the rankings employ co-generation power plants that have helped them reduce their reliance on coal or nuclear power.
Students are no longer silent on such issues. At many campuses, they have protested their school’s dependence upon coal power, with its heavy carbon pollution, providing yet another reason for universities to find alternatives and pushing the green movement into almost every arena of campus life.
“So it’s student led. It’s campus led. It’s also faculty led,” Binshtock said. “They’re forward-thinking people, and they would like to see the world going in a better way also.”
The Cool Schools rankings are based on a survey designed to measure a university’s progress on sustainability in 10 areas: energy supply, efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments, and a catch-all called “other initiatives.”
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