Teams of undergraduate students huddled quietly around the gray metal desks in the teaching labs at Harvard’s Science Center. Each group was creating a calorimeter out of a used soda can and scavenged Styrofoam cups to determine the energy density and efficiency of the biodiesel they had extracted the week before from waste fryer oil provided by Annenberg Dining Hall.
The students’ research factors into both scholarship and institutional action as Harvard works to generate solutions to the challenge of climate change. They have joined the ranks of Harvard Kennedy School faculty member James Stock, who received one of the first Climate Change Solutions Fund grants for his research investigating market impediments to biofuels penetration. Institutionally, the students are looking at the University’s 2004 decision to fuel its shuttles with biodiesel, which emerged as an alternative fuel source for vehicles because it creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and reduces pollution.
“The biodiesel lesson definitely personalized the manner in which we utilize energy here on campus,” said Victor Agbafe ’19. “In many instances, when we are thinking about how Harvard as an institution is trying its best to set new trends in saving energy, it can be abstract, and we can’t often observe tangible examples of how this is implemented on a daily basis.”
Students involved in the teaching lab’s biodiesel experiment said the work has given them new perspectives on the larger local, regional, and global issues of energy and sustainability.
The story of how waste vegetable oil from Harvard’s freshman dining hall ended up being used in one of the College’s most popular chemistry classes began as a collaboration between the Office for Sustainability’s (OFS) FAS Green Program and Sirinya Matchacheep, Ph.D. ’07, the director of instructional programs in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Matchacheep, an active OFS Green Team member, wanted to incorporate lessons from the campus commitment to sustainability into the curriculum of the teaching labs classes she facilitates. She partnered with sustainability coordinator Anthony Michetti to identify several creative ways to do just that for the nearly 400 students taking the Chemistry Department’s entry-level PS1 and PS11 classes.