Originally published in It’s Getting Hot In Here.
The sustainability movement on college and university campuses has grown immensely this decade. In just a few years, sustainability has gone from a debate in a few campuses to a reality in virtually most colleges and universities. Behind this movement of colleges and universities trying to become sustainable is the energy of students who have organized to push sustainability forward in regards to funding, awareness, policy, and practice.
Students have organized themselves to pressure schools to do more on areas like energy and climate change, waste, food and water, and transportation. But at the same time, another group of non-activist students has been emerging to push sustainability from a different angle. This group is made up of students who don’t necessarily want to become active organizers on campus, but instead want to help colleges and universities research and develop new technologies, practices, and designs that can lower society’s ecological footprint.
There is a strong need to create opportunities for students to develop technologies, practices, and designs that can make campuses more sustainable. While many institutions have been integrating sustainability into curricula, few are actually creating research opportunities that directly engage students in creating or improving the solutions that can help us become more sustainable faster. To add to the lack of student research opportunities, there isn’t a vibrant organized community of students pushing to create these opportunities, probably because such students are simply interested in helping develop solutions but not ready to organize to make such opportunities available.
Recently, new opportunities have become available through national initiatives and federal funding. For example, the President’s Climate Commitment has stimulated fascinating campus work to develop campus solutions to reach climate neutrality, and in many schools students have been able to participate in such work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has also made funding available for research and development at major universities in key areas like energy and transportation. Finally, the Higher Education Sustainability Act passed last year makes $50 million available for campus projects that directly create student research opportunities.
In spite of these new opportunities, more needs to be done to fully capture the potential held in students. Recent legislation is a first good step, but more will be required to ensure that more students can participate in the development of solutions to critical global challenges. By experimenting on campus, improving existing technologies, and creating new designs for products and processes, students can greatly add to the wealth of researchers available in colleges and university campuses. This is especially important because the challenges we face seem to be becoming more alarming over time, requiring us to act more quickly to catch up.
In a time like this, where the world faces critical ecological and social challenges like climate change and dwindling water supplies, it is important to support student research opportunities not just to solve these challenges, but to create the capacity society will need in the future to prevent future ones. Student organizing may be at its peak because of the institutionalization of sustainability, but that doesn’t mean students should not be part of implementing the plans we have committed to on college and university campuses. Students should be key players in the creation of solutions and tomorrow’s leading clean tech industries.