New curriculum contributes to VCU’s sustainability

Students collaborate to clean up campus in an effort to make VCU a more sustainable environment. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Ali Jones
Contributing Writer

Students may have an option to improve their undergraduate academic resumes and VCU’s standing as a sustainable urban campus with a new 18-credit certificate in sustainability.

VCU’s proposal for the new sustainability certificate is on the agenda for the Board of Visitors’ May meeting.

The meeting next month is the last step before the idea is reported to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The plan for the certificate is to cohere with any undergraduate degree, and prepare students for knowledge of sustainability and innovation.

Clifford Fox, Ph.D., the associate director for the Center for Environmental Studies, has spearheaded this certificate with the aid of the Sustainability Academics Leadership Team and Beverly Warren, Ph.D., provost and Thomas Huff, Ph.D., vice provost.

In 2008, the student organization Green Unity petitioned President Eugene Trani to create the university’s Office of Sustainability. Trani’s signature on petition also committed VCU to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. This alliance set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and required the creation of Office of Sustainability. This led to the initiative of sustainable academics in 2010.

When the initiative started in 2010 to not only change VCU’s carbon footprint, but to influence how students think, the staff realized they were missing a large opportunity to educate students in the area of sustainability. In 2012, Fox and the rest of his team began the idea and process of the certificate.

“Your generation will face problems that are going to require innovation, which requires sustainable thinking, which requires integrated systems,” Fox said. “What we do is linked to the natural systems we’re embedded in, and it’s important that students learn this thinking, because that’s what will drive their lives or careers over the next century.”

The 18 required credits are broken up into three different stages, the first being a gateway course which is an introductory course explaining sustainability and how to innovate sustainably using the James River Basin as the lab. After completion of the gateway course, 12 credits are then needed from any elective course with a sustainability attribute, which are now labeled as ‘sustainability content’, said Fox.

After the credits are completed, a form of applied experience containing sustainable content and contribution to the community is necessary, whether it is independent study or an internship, Fox said.

The certificate stems from the sustainability academic initiative, and attempts to include every curricula in every program. Whether the content of the course considers sustainability as something important to know, or as the main concentration of the course, the sustainability academic team is working to encourage bachelor programs to add content in order to qualify, he said.

Following Earth Day 2014, VCU continues to strive for sustainability excellence. Despite the increase of VCU’s greenhouse gas emissions each year due to the increase of buildings and students, the carbon footprint per square foot has decreased, said Parker Long, sustainability reporting and outreach coordinator.

VCU is ranked according to the Sustainability and Tracking Assessment Rating System (STARS), an association for advancement of sustainability and higher education. The ranking is based on levels—no school in the U.S. has reached the platinum level, and no school has reached gold in Virginia, but VCU, as well as Virginia Tech, University of Virginia., James Madison University and University of Richmond have reached silver, said Long.

While all schools in Virginia are implementing different strategies for sustainability, VCU has the most alternative transportation methods and has the second largest array of solar panels in Virginia. Additionally, VCU has the most water bottle filling stations on campus than any other school in Virginia, with stations in approximately 30 buildings, said Long.

Furthermore, VCU’s Office of Sustainability led the path to the construction of the Rice Center, the first LEED platinum building in Virginia. A second green roof was later created, located at Pollak, said Long.

VCU’s Office of Sustainability has implemented a new recycling program on campus and plans to increase the bicycles at the library bike-loaning station. Future improvements also include retrofitting older buildings and tackling the dorms, said Long.

“The more we can do to reduce and conserve, the better it is,” Long said. “VCU has a chance to partake in conserving the limited amount of resource available, as well as set an example for the community.”

Green Unity is the largest environmental club on campus, as well as a the main source for starting the Office of Sustainability. Working closely with VCU and the Office of Sustainability, they work to promote a more environmentally conscious campus and advocate the importance of being “green,” said Jessica Shim, Green Unity leadership team member and elementary education major.

VCU’s mission statement and Quest for Distinction both outline human health and sustainability as top priorities, and standing by the promise is important, for following through with said plans, as well as establishing a leading role in educating students for a better future, said Shim.

“The sustainability program started out as student generated. We’re working to catch up with you all,” Fox said.

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