Campus & Community

Student projects turn campus into ‘living lab’

5 min read

First round of grants from Campus Sustainability Innovative Fund awarded

Harvard’s efforts to stimulate living lab research that uses the campus to pilot creative sustainability solutions are gaining steam, less than a year after new research funding opportunities were announced.

Five innovative and multidisciplinary student research projects were awarded funding in the inaugural round of grants from the Harvard Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund (CSIF), the Office for Sustainability (OFS) announced. The fund, which was created in September 2016 with $200,000 from the University, has since increased to $700,000 after a donation made in the name of Malcom W.P. Strandberg, Ph.D. ’41.

“We want to be providing our students with a unique learning experience of directly engaging with real-world sustainability challenges by using the campus to test and refine their ideas,” said OFS Director Heather Henriksen. “Not only does our living lab research have promising practical applications here at Harvard, it will inform the development of solutions that can be scaled up and widely replicated well beyond the boundaries of our campus.”

With the support of CSIF funding, the diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows, will leverage their expertise in public health, design, psychology, and chemistry to research healthier buildings, vibrant public spaces, behavior change, and green agriculture.

“The funding has allowed me to initiate a pilot study using cutting-edge technology which will form the basis for my master’s thesis assessing the health impact of biophilic design,” said Jie Yin, who is studying for a master’s degree in science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I very much appreciate the great support from the Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund, which has provided me with a great opportunity to use Harvard buildings to test my hypothesis.”

Each project has a student applicant, faculty advisers, and staff partners, and must align with one of the five topics in Harvard’s University-wide Sustainability Plan. The applications are evaluated by their potential to be implemented on campus and/or be scaled up across the local, regional, and global levels.

The projects are listed below, along with their student applicants and faculty advisers:

Assessing the Health Impact of Biophilic Design among Harvard Buildings: A Virtual Reality Approach
Jie Yin, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Professors Jack Spengler and Joseph Allen, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

There is limited research quantifying the impact that biophilic design, which incorporates natural elements into the built environment, has on health. This project will use virtual reality to investigate the physiological and cognitive impact that physical and virtual exposure to biophilic environments in Harvard buildings have on their users.

Sustainable Electro-Biofertilizer Production
Kelsey Sakimoto, Ziff Environmental Fellow, Harvard University Center for Environment
Professor Daniel Nocera, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

This project seeks to address Harvard’s sustainable food, greenhouse gas emissions, and educational goals by using “artificial leaf” technology to transform Harvard’s waste streams into a potent biofertilizer with renewable electricity. The project used a pilot program at a campus community garden to demonstrate the system’s ability to close Harvard’s nutrient cycle and promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Re(Design) Innovation Challenge
Erika Eitland, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Professor Joseph Allen, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The interdisciplinary student case challenge, which launched in fall 2016, recruited five multidisciplinary teams to crowd-source design ideas to transform an underutilized space on the Longwood Campus into a vibrant, accessible learning and social space. The winning team is working with Harvard Medical School to formalize construction documents for the space and plan to integrate the Mission Hill community in the design process.

Are Recyclers Blind to Efficacy?
Jason Nemirow, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Theodora Mautz, Harvard College ’19
Professor Steven Pinker, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

When organizations and businesses like Harvard endeavor to promote sustainable and environmentally beneficial practices, understanding people’s perceptions and assumptions can help them craft policies and encourage behaviors that are more effective over the long term. This project explores people’s perceptions of recycling and the recycling habits of those around them by launching a survey designed to gauge people’s attitudes, perceptions, and opinions regarding recycling.

Harvard Sensors for Health Pilot
Piers MacNaughton, research fellow, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Professor Joseph Allen, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Healthier indoor environments are integral to protecting the health and well-being of occupants. This project will use two offices at Harvard to pilot a comprehensive health performance platform for buildings. The platform combines building inspections with real-time monitoring and environmental sampling to evaluate how buildings align with the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building. The longitudinal assessment will give building management insight into how to optimize these spaces for health and generate data for new research.

“It adds a special level of satisfaction to the long hours of lab work, when the resulting discovery is translated to a real-life campus setting, as enabled by the Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund,” said Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy.

In addition to CSIF, the Office for Sustainability also provides micro-grants for students to test creative ideas in the conceptual stage through a Student Sustainability Grant Program.