Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations on Campus)

Engaging Sustainable Thinking

On most american university campuses, the term “sustainability” has moved beyond traditional “feel good” activities to way-of-life thinking. Recycling and composting in the dining hall are as much the norm as green design in campus architecture. What’s now important is encouraging sustainable thinking across the curriculum and throughout the community and engaging students, faculty and staff to integrate sustainability in academics, research and innovation.

The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI) was founded in 2003 in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering with the support of John C. “Jack” Mascaro (ENGR ’66, ’80G), founder and chair of Mascaro Construction Company LP. Part of Jack’s philosophy in helping to establish MSCI was that faculty and students in the Swanson School should pursue sustainable outcomes that would have a true impact on Pitt and the community and at large.

To mark MCSI’s tenth anniversary in 2014 and take our success to the next level, the university announced a new $37.5 million funding initiative comprising various endowments and current funds to support sustainability-related academics and research. Through the leadership of a new Sustainability Task Force, established by Provost Patricia Beeson, the university is now extending sustainability initiatives throughout Pitt’s academic programs and research initiatives.

The Provost’s Sustainability Task Force, which comprises faculty representatives from across campus, is charged with three goals: to catalyze interdisciplinary sustainability research; to enrich the undergraduate and graduate program offerings in the area of sustainability; and to further enhance Pitt’s national recognition in sustainability.

Record-Breaking Start

Marking the 2014-2015 academic year as the Year of Sustainability at Pitt with the theme “One Pitt One Planet,” faculty and staff took the provost’s challenge to engage in a new academic paradigm for our campus. Of course, there was one important audience to address — the thousands of incoming first-years to Pitt’s urban campus, each of whom would have different exposure to sustainable practices depending upon their home environment.

But sometimes engaging today’s youth requires a bit of lighthearted fun. The Year of Sustainability officially kicked off in August 2014 during orientation when some 3,800 first-years gathered outside the Petersen Events Center and formed an image of the globe by holding up blue and red LED lights. Coordinated by the Office of Student Affairs, their goal was to break the record for the largest torch-lit image, but also to experience a collective event that would resonate with them as individuals and as a class, and thereby open the Year of Sustainability for everyone on campus.

Since then, MCSI has helped to coordinate numerous activities and initiatives across campus. Just a few include:

  • Sustainable Solutions Competition: Implemented by the Student Office of Sustainability, PittServes and MCSI, five teams of interdisciplinary students participated in a six-day competition to create the next big idea in sustainability for campus. The winning team’s plan is to renovate the lobby of the Litchfield Towers residential complex and make it more environmentally friendly, with $25,000 pledged by the university to make improvements to lighting, window shades, low-flow toilets and a hydration station. In addition, the runner-up team’s proposal to place three solar powered “Big Belly” trash compactors on campus will also be implemented.
  • Sustainable Lecture Series: This has been one of the most intriguing programs, with faculty sharing sustainability-themed research from within their disciplines. More than 20 lectures to date with topics ranging from managing environmental risks in the shale gas industry to social justice and the emergence of “Cli-Fi,” or climate change fiction.
  • Engineering Sustainability Conference – Innovation and Triple Bottom Line: Presented by MCSI and Carnegie Mellon University’s Steinbrenner Institute, this conference brings together engineers and scientists from around the globe to Pittsburgh to discuss the ever-evolving research and practice directed at development of environmentally sustainable buildings and infrastructure — our “built environment.”

Sustainability as Philosophy

This active engagement across disciplines has had a positive impact across campus and is helping to break down the silos by further encouraging faculty collaboration in teaching, research and innovation. When we announced the sustainability initiative last spring, Provost Beeson said of Jack Mascaro, “Throughout his relationship with Pitt, Jack has never thought of ‘sustainability’ as merely a branding statement or green-washing, but rather a philosophy that should influence every action and interaction within the University and without, both now and especially in the future.” That vision is now becoming a reality and a new way of thinking at Pitt.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Gena M. Kovalcik is co-director, Administration and External Relations, at the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.