Game On!

Anything you can do I can do better. That’s the idea around many campus Ecolympic events. These dorm-to-dorm competitions inspire students to save energy, recycle, and learn about reducing their carbon footprint. What does it take to run one of these competitions, and do they really help schools and their students go green?

“Absolutely,” insisted Deedee DeLongpre-Johnston, director, office of sustainability, University of Florida, Gainesville. “Lack of information is never the barrier; students know about energy conservation and recycling. But actually doing it, touching it, experiencing it in a visceral way makes all the difference. And turning it into a peer-to-peer positive competition makes it all the more exciting.”

One fun national program the University participates in is Recyclemania. This multi-approach program attacks recycling from a variety of angles. Students earn T-shirts by recycling and “getting caught green-handed.” (“Students will do anything for a T-shirt,” said DeLongpre-Johnston with a laugh.) They also have boxes of throwaways that students must sort. The program cumulates with dumping actual trash on a huge tarp on a lawn, allowing students to see what made it into the waste stream by mistake.

While the program is fun, DeLongpre-Johnston admited that recycling is a “gateway behavior. Students become enraged if there aren’t any bins to sort their trash, which is great, but the energy crisis remains a far more pressing issue.” With an annual $40M electric bill that threatens to go up 30 percent next year, the University of Florida feels that pressure in a very real way.

To inspire students to save energy, the University runs a Battle of the Halls competition. Nicknamed “The Biggest Loser,” the competition pits dorm against dorm to save electricity. Last year they added a technical component to the competition where students may log on to a utility screen to find out in real time how much energy their dorm was — or wasn’t — using. “We saw research that stated if they knew the actual numbers students would be inspired to save more,” said DeLongpre-Johnston. “Overall, during that month students reduced their energy usage by 24 percent.” She pointed out that the students get the same utility bill no matter the savings, “yet the kids were still inspired to compete.”

Glow for It
Some people may not be inspired or motivated to click on a computer screen to see real time data. To reach these people and get everyone talking, students at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, created an unusual way to present data. “We developed energy orbs that glow in different colors depending on a building’s energy use,” explained John Petersen, associate professor or Environmental Studies.

Tied into the hard data of how much energy a building is using at any given moment, the orb glows a vivid green when energy usage registers 50 percent below normal. Normal energy usage generates a yellow glow, and high usage causes the orb to blaze an angry red. “This provides ambient information that people can absorb and use,” said Petersen. While they haven’t gathered enough data yet to measure the orb’s true impact, Petersen insisted that, anecdotally, they make a difference. “They get people talking, and the dorm that won last year’s ecology contest had an orb in it,” he said.

Triathlon of Ecology
Realizing that it takes various approaches to shift attitudes, Sam Hummel started the Ecolympics while studying at Duke University in Durham, NC. “I wanted to help change student behavior and culture,” said Hummel, who is now on the IT team at the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “So we stated a suite of events that covers a range of environmental topics.”

Founded in 2003, the month-long competition engages the school’s 1600 freshman in a variety of ways. “We chose to focus on the freshman class because they are grouped in one area of the campus and each building is individually metered,” explained Hummel. Along with energy and recycling competitions, the contest features an eco-trivia night where ten to 14 tough questions (like “Where does all of the Duke garbage end up?”) are posed. “There’s no Website that gives the answer to these questions. Students have to talk to people,” said Hummel. The answers (like “It is hauled all the way to landfill in Virginia”) are posted on table cards at the end of the competition.

Along with the glory of victory, some residence halls win prizes at the Ecolympics. “We offer cash — $300 for first place, $200 for second, and $100 for third — for wining, along with a Challenge trophy that rotates from dorm to dorm,” said Sarah Cleaves, associate director, University Office of Sustainability, University of New Hampshire in Durham. The benefits for her school’s competition also work out in cash. “Last fall we saved over $40,000 of energy and water costs, or 189 metric tons of CO2, during the six-week competition,” she said.

Get Personal
If competitions like Ecolympics can be compared to a New Year’s resolution, then Eco-reps should be compared to personal trainers. These on-campus student representatives put a face on sustainability year-round and act as an advisor to all things green. “I’ve seen studies that suggest that competitions inspire a burst of conservation that eventually falls off,” said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director, AASHE. “Eco-reps offer continuous education to their peers. I know of about 25 schools that have them, but I suspect there are quite a bit more.”

Without Even Thinking
While competitions and peer representatives help save energy, more traditional, unseen examples continue to permeate the campus. The University of Florida is always looking for ways to cut energy usage in its 950 buildings. “We audit roofs, windows, and HVAC, and two years ago we delamped every other fixture,” said DeLongpre-Johnston.

The University of New Hampshire gave out 1,720 free compact fluorescent light bulbs to their students this fall. The bulbs are projected to save an estimated $17,250 in energy costs this year. “We integrate sustainability throughout our campus,” insisted Cleaves. “It’s part of our curriculum, but we also use upgraded appliances in the residence halls and co-generated heat and power from gas produced by our local landfill. Sustainability is about connections and intersections. It’s a whole rainbow, not just green.”

Petersen at Oberlin College agreed. “Smart buildings make people dumb about conserving energy,” he said. “You have no control over the building’s energy use. An older building can become a component in the education process. It makes people responsible and causes them to think about their environment.”