Campus & Community

‘Life classes’ teach local, global ways to go green

6 min read

In the offices of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI), there is everything you would expect from that arm of University Operations Services: no-glue carpeting, energy-efficient lighting, high-tech windows, and sensors that adjust ventilation by measuring CO2.

But in plain sight, next to one of the recycled cubicles, there is also a toilet. The bowl is packed with bottles of water — a reminder of how much H2O is wasted with every flush of a conventional commode.

Lessons in sustainability at Harvard are not always that dramatic. But environmental lessons are increasingly evident, both in formal classes and in outreach efforts aimed at changing personal behavior.

Consider the 2006-07 Environmental Course Guide, compiled by the Harvard University Center for the Environment. It includes more than 100 pages of classes offered in every discipline, from anthropology and applied mathematics, to philosophy, physics, and religion.

At the Harvard Business School, students can take courses in agribusiness. At Harvard Divinity School, they can explore Buddhism’s sacred mountain traditions of Asia. Campuswide, there are environment-related classes on ancient settlements, energy policy, nature writing, forest biology, and fish diversity.

In one course this spring, “Environmental Science and Public Policy 10,” ecologist William C. Clark challenged undergraduates to look at future Allston development through the lens of sustainability — and write detailed projects rethinking Harvard’s signature red brick and green grass. Clark is Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Harvard Extension School offers 20 environment-related courses, including “Environment 119,” a class on the design, construction, and operation of sustainable buildings. One evening this month, a few E-119 student presentations covered the fine points of life-cycle costing, hybrid ventilation, low-flush toilets, high-performance windows, and vertical-access wind turbines.

The Extension School courses, many of them offered online, have given Harvard a global reputation for classroom explorations of sustainability, said course co-instructor John Spengler. (He’s the Harvard School of Public Health’s Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation.)

Some Harvard courses aim at immediate practical effects. One, “Engineering Sciences 96,” has over the years used real issues — parking patterns, wastewater drains, cell phone towers — to explore the processes of engineering design.

“We treat these projects as a studio course for students,” said instructor Frederick H. Abernathy, the Gordon McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

ES-96 students one year studied energy use at Harvard’s Maxwell-Dworkin building — where Abernathy said they found that more than 10 percent of the energy used could be saved “by better management and a few piping changes.”

This spring, ES-96 students looked at geothermal heating and cooling systems at 46 Blackstone St., 90 Mt. Auburn St., Zero Arrow Street, and other Harvard buildings.

Other formal environmental instruction at Harvard gets students outdoors, too.

Last year, students taking a Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) landscape course began a green-roof retrofit of GSD’s Gund Hall that will take several years. Green-roof vegetation slows down storm water, absorbs pollutants, and moderates a building’s temperature.

In April, lecturer Katrin Scholz-Barth took to the roof, helping students spread a pebble-like growing medium and cuttings of sedum, a succulent known for its hardiness and water-storing leaves.

“Hands-on provides so much more exposure than just talking about it in the classroom,” said Scholz-Barth, a civil and environmental engineer.

Beyond the classroom, outreach environmental education at Harvard gets informal and personal, with its mantra of imperatives: Turn off your computer. Shut out the lights. Recycle more.

The Campus Energy Reduction Program, started in 2002, was the first outreach program started by the then-fledgling HGCI. It initially focused on sensible computer usage at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where 6,500 undergraduates and 700 faculty sit down at their keyboards every day. In the past five years, FAS has realized energy savings of $700,000.

The program has since been expanded to Harvard Medical School, the Dental School, and the Harvard School of Public Health — “with equally impressive results,” said HGCI director Leith Sharp.

HGCI now sponsors a campus sustainability pledge (7,000 signed up last fall), a campus energy reduction cartoon contest (CERtoon), and Shut the Sash, a campaign to save energy in science laboratories. (If left open when not in use, fume hoods consume 3.5 times more energy than a house.)

There is also HGCI-sponsored outreach education for undergraduates — the Resource Efficiency Program (REP) — and one for 2,900 Harvard graduate students, the Graduate Green Living Program (GGL).

“We’re doing very well” with GGL, said program manager Meryl Brott, who oversees 20 part-time student employees. Program sponsors include Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Real Estate Services.

From last July to March of this year, there was a 20 percent drop in energy usage at One Western Ave., one of the graduate housing locations in the program, said Brott. And recycling rates at all three locations have tripled since 2005.

REP outreach for undergraduates is done by 19 part-time student employees who get out the message on recycling, energy use, water consumption, and other issues. A recent survey suggests that REP has an 80 percent recognition rate. “We’re reaching the vast majority of students,” said FAS-REP coordinator Philip Kreycik ’06. (Like Brott, he’s employed by the HGCI.)

REP is sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University Dining Services, and University Operations Services.

The HGCI is engaged in helping Harvard implement hundreds of projects every year. But of all of these, it may be these large-scale behavioral change programs that “ultimately have the greatest impact both within and beyond Harvard,” said Sharp.

Lessons “start now, and then carry on beyond college,” said Faon O’Connor ’08, a Manhattan native who did REP outreach at Mather House. “And it’s fun.”

Results for REP are hard to quantify, said Kreycik. But dorm electricity usage is down 11 percent, compared with the year before REP started, he said. And food waste — 4 ounces per undergraduate dorm meal in 2002 — is now about 2.6 ounces.

REP helped with some lessons at the April 21 Earth Day celebration at Malkin Quadrangle. One display brought sustainability down to the scale of a dorm room. Ideally, it would use compact fluorescent light bulbs (longer life and less energy) and its power strip would get unplugged at night.

The dorm room occupant would also take shorter showers. (One minute less in the spray per day saves 800 gallons of water a year.)

Other lessons that day were brief but vivid. One poster showed a picture of our shimmering planet from outer space. Underneath were a few words: “Earth. It’s kind of a big deal.”