LINCOLN — As college students become more concerned about climate change, energy and the environment, many area campuses are rapidly turning “green.”
Not only are they embracing energy-efficient buildings and recycling, a growing number are developing academic programs focusing on sustainability.
Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha appear to be at the forefront of the movement locally. Both are developing academic programs to prepare students for a future where recycling, conservation and alternative energy are part of everyday business.
“Climate change, for me, is one of the most important issues,” said Hannah Mullally, a Creighton freshman environmental science major from Seward, Neb. “It’s our duty to protect the environment that God gave us. We have to protect it for future generations.”
The Nebraska colleges are part of a rapidly growing national movement. From 2008 to 2012, the number of U.S. college degree programs focused specifically on sustainability grew more than tenfold, from 13 to 141, according to a survey of more than 1,600 U.S. four-year colleges and universities. The survey was conducted by the National Council for Science and the Environment.
The growth in sustainability studies is part of an overall explosion in environmental studies: 29 percent more colleges offer environmental programs today than in 2008. Undergraduate enrollments in them have grown by nearly 50 percent.
“Sustainability,” undeniably, means different things to different people. Sometimes it’s used to talk about switching to solar energy, wind energy or biofuels. Other times it’s talking about conservation, recycling and minimizing waste.
Often it refers to agricultural practices, describing new ways to farm without depleting the soil and water.
The campus programs tend to be interdisciplinary, meaning they cross the boundaries between hard science and the humanities. The aim is to familiarize young scientists with the social issues of sustainability while giving future policymakers and communicators a foundation in science.
Creighton recently was cited by the Princeton Review as one of 322 campuses nationally that have demonstrated “a notable commitment to sustainability.” CU is the only Nebraska institution to make the list. It is also one of only three campuses in the country to offer degree programs focusing specifically on sustainable energy.
The first Creighton students to earn minors in the two-year-old academic program will graduate this month. The programs are still too young for students to have had time to complete a full degree, said Michael Cherney, a Creighton physicist who helped the school obtain an array of solar panels and develop its new degree program, using more than $2 million in federal funding.
UNO is not far behind. Next school year it will open a Center for Urban Sustainability, which will work with other colleges and industry to promote sustainability-related research and service. Recent renovations at the Peter Kiewit Institute include more space for engineering research related to sustainable construction methods.
Meanwhile, academic leaders are working to develop a new undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate in sustainability, said Patrick Wheeler, a UNO staff member and environmental studies faculty member who helps coordinate campus sustainability activities.
Several Iowa institutions appear on the Princeton Review’s list, including the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. All three offer at least some academic courses focused on sustainability. The University of Iowa offers an undergraduate certificate in sustainability, and Iowa State has an interdisciplinary sustainability minor.
In all its permutations, sustainability is a concept of great interest to many of today’s college students.
“This is our future,” said Haley Warren, a Creighton sophomore majoring in math and justice in society. “And it’s being affected by pollution and the other things that contribute to climate change.”
Warren, who is from Portland, Ore., is a member of the Green Jays, a campus student organization that promotes sustainability.
“Ever since I was little I was into the environment and environmental issues,” said Brice Miller, a UNO management, marketing and entrepreneurship major. As a student at UNO’s College of Business Administration, he has come to see sustainability as a component of business success.
“You’re not just trying to do good for the Earth,” said Miller, who heads Green Basis, a UNO student group focused on sustainability strategies for business. “It’s good for the bottom line.”
Creighton and its faculty view attention to the environment as part of its Jesuit mission of service, Cherney said.
“It’s seeing that the world around us is good,” he said, “and deciding that we have a responsibility to keep it this good place.”
Dave Gosselin, UNL’s director of environmental studies, said enrollments in environmental studies classes have increased by as much as 50 percent since a 2008 curriculum overhaul that incorporated sustainability into its environmental studies classes.
Sustainability also is offered through UNL’s agriculture programs. Though UNL does not offer a separate major or minor in environmental sustainability, it offers minors in sustainable agriculture and sustainable horticulture systems and is planning a doctorate in agri-ecology.
Three years ago, Creighton used a $1.12 million Department of Energy grant to purchase and install solar panels on campus, Cherney said. The panels provide a small percentage of Creighton’s energy supply, but their major purpose is to teach students.
A subsequent $1.2 million grant was used to develop an academic program incorporating the solar arrays into the curriculum. The program soon will expand into new space in a renovated building.
Jason Goins of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Jordan Kellerstrass of Edwardsville, Ill., were among the students who jumped at the chance to enroll in Creighton’s new sustainable energy program.
Both are graduating May 18. Kellerstrass, with a computer science degree and a minor in sustainable energy, is headed to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a doctorate in computer science. Goins, with a chemistry degree and a minor in energy technology, plans to attend graduate school at the Colorado School of Mines, where he will study the use of algae for biofuels.
Both said they chose Creighton because of its public service mission. Its growing “green” reputation complements that mission, they said.
“It wasn’t a factor in my choosing Creighton, but it was a factor that I was happier with the choice once I was here,” Goins said.
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