University of Vermont

Snowy Day

Inspired by AASHE in the Steel City

by Anna Mika, M.S., Ph.D., 2009-2012 Performance Tracking Fellow

When I first found out that we were going to Pittsburgh for the (now) annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, several thoughts crossed my mind.  First, as always, I was excited to check out a new city.  Second, I thought that there might not be much to check out.  Visions of a ghost town caused by the abandonment of the steel industry (and now facing the threat of hydrofracking for natural gas), similar to towns in MI abandoned by car industry, flooded my mind.  Third, I was mostly really excited to see the progress that other colleges and universities have been making toward sustainability!

We hit the ground running.  Well, first we hit the ground driving.  Everyone from our office, minus Tarah who was coming from an event in DC, piled into a high-tech van and drove down to Pittsburgh on Saturday Oct. 8th.  It took a while, but we had some relaxing stops along the way and stimulating conversations in the van.  On Sunday, we went our separate ways to various special topics workshops.  I went to the advanced workshop on the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS), which is a framework developed by AASHE for institutions of higher education to track their progress toward sustainability.  It is similar to LEED for buildings, but for the whole university system.

Several speakers from other institutions shared their experience in participating in STARS, including sustainability directors/coordinators from Middlebury College, University of Florida, and Moraine Valley Community College.  They shared their insights on how to address certain difficult areas, such as creating a process to count "sustainability-related" and "sustainability-focused" courses.  Some issues include: Do you count the number of credits or the number of actual courses?  How do you get people to be on the same page about what "sustainability" even means?  To many not involved in sustainability work, the word is equated with "environment" in their minds, although it means much more than that, including social and economic sustainability and diversity.

All of the keynote speakers were very inspirational and well-spoken.  Majora Carter talked about "greening the ghetto" by increasing racial and economic diversity in the Bronx, while providing green community space and local employment opportunities for the poor.  Dr. Sandra Steingraber talked about the dangers of hydrofracking and the role that higher education can play in addressing the issue with the government.  Dr. David Orr was very inspirational in talking about the need to educate the younger generations about climate change and getting them excited to be active politically and socially.  The Chancellor from UC Riverside, Tim White, talked about the many opportunities that universities have to support renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives on campus.

Steve Posner, a fellow at the UVM Office of Sustainability and the Eco-Reps program coordinator, and I presented on the ENVS 187 Camus Sustainability course.  I introduced the history of the Office of Sustainability and the course and Steve talked about about how we integrated system thinking into the course in the Spring of 2011.  Our presentation was well attended and people were very interested to ask questions and talk to us afterward.

Finally, I went to as many individual sessions as I could.  I attended sessions on how to: engage the campus community while working on a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, create strategies for writing and implementing a climate action plan, think about creating a carbon offset program on campus, and participating in STARS.

We rode back to Burlington feeling inspired, excited, and exhausted.  I did get to see a bit of the city when Kate and I walked from our hotel suites to the conference center (a 4 mile walk!).  We walked through some diverse neighborhoods where you could get everything from pierogies to Thai food.  For dinner one night, we also checked out a restaurant that had been converted from a church to a brew pub, which was very interesting.

Now the challenge is to take what I learned at the conference and try to use it in my own work.  I have already reflected a lot on what I heard and typed up my notes to try to have something to reference.  I look forward to continuing learning and doing the best I can to help UVM become more sustainable!