Earth Day, held each April 22 to inspire awareness of and action for the Earth's environment, is on the horizon, and colleges are well aware. Whether the goal is reducing a campus's carbon emissions, getting students to think critically about their environmental impact, or simply doing a better job with reclycing, colleges and universities across the country are celebrating the day through panel discussions, presentations, and academic lessons. But some schools are also getting creative.
Take Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Traditionally, officials at the Massachusetts engineering and technology university do not shy away from instilling green values in their students. But, because this April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, they are taking their commitment to sustainability to a whole new level. More than three weeks of environmentally themed activities, dubbed "Earthfest 2010," have been planned, kicking off with a demonstration of a free-watt energy system designed by WPI alumnus and engineer Mark Macaulay on April 1.
John Orr, provost and chair of WPI's President's Task Force on Sustainability, says the events help to bring a focus to students' interests in sustainability, and many students have already taken action in different ways. "Some students are interested in recycling, some are interested from a high-tech or engineering perspective, and some are interested in the social justice aspect," he says.
Other activities at WPI for Earthfest include a student flea market on the quad, various expert panels and presentations on sustainability, and a student poster competition that addresses the technological dimensions of environmental challenges. There is even a video competition for students, faculty, and staff to produce one-minute films that promote reducing, reusing, and recycling waste. Cash prizes of up to $250 are given to the most humorous and educational videos.
The University of Denver is also going all out for its Earth Day-related programming in honor of the 40th anniversary. Thirty days of events have been planned throughout April, including a "Why Should I Bother" campaign, designed to highlight reasons why students should bother driving less, conserving water, conserving electricity, and recycling.
Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., is taking a multipronged approach to celebrate Earth Day, with both student and faculty interests in mind. On April 20, there will be a green career fair where organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, and Efficiency Vermont will meet with students to discuss ecofriendly career and internship opportunities. And for the school's "Employee Efficiency Event," representatives from the nonprofit Efficiency Vermont—a statewide provider of energy efficiency services—and other local businesses will talk with staff and faculty members to explain how they can reduce energy consumption in their homes and take advantage of various rebates and incentives through Efficiency Vermont. Energy efficient products, such as compact fluorescent lamps and smart strips, will also be available to purchase at reduced prices.
But for students who just want to sit back and have a little fun (and learn something in the process), there are options along those lines, too. Yoram Bauman, an economist and standup "economic" comedian from the University of Washington, will visit Saint Michael's College to offer a humorous take on issues pertaining climate change. And at the University of Maryland—Baltimore County, students can relax and enjoy several showings of the Planet Earth television series, as well as a marathon of the 1990's cartoon show, Captain Planet.
While they commend colleges' sustainability efforts, some experts are less inclined to celebrate. Alec Bodzin, a professor of science education at Lehigh University, says that although the populace is more environmentally literate than 40 years ago, environmental education must become a mandatory part of state's K-12 school curriculum. "Our rivers are cleaner now and there is less trash on our roads, but we still have many children who prefer to be inside in front of a TV or a computer instead of being outside," he says.
Taking that advice to heart, officials at Colgate University see Earth Day as an opportunity to get more in touch with nature, and they plan on doing that by connecting with some of the feathered members of the campus community. John Pumilio, the school's sustainability coordinator, will lead several hourlong Earth Day "Birdwalks" during the day. "Each year, chickadees, juncos, sparrows, hummingbirds, warblers, hawks, owls, woodpeckers, and many other species build their nests and raise their families right outside of the buildings where we learn and teach," he says. "This is a way to get some exercise, meet other people, and emphasize that nature is right outside our office windows."
There will also be some rocking out: The whole Colgate community is invited to a folk festival concert, where information booths from local green organizations and businesses will be set up, along with a raffle for prizes such as a full season's share of locally grown organic produce. Binghamton University has a similar annual "zero waste festival," and so does St. Michael's College, where musical performances take place on a solar-powered stage and free healthful snacks and treats are given to attendees.
The animal theme is also important at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. The small liberal arts college's Center for Environment & Society is letting dogs get in on the action: On Saturday, April 24, the school is partnering with the town of Chestertown and the Humane Society of Kent County, Md., to hold its annual "mutt strut" and Earth Day festival. There is a farmer's market, live music, and ecofriendly crafters and vendors, but the real fun might be the dog parade. It winds through town and finishes at the courthouse, where the dogs compete in a series of agility contests and tricks.
There also is free paper shredding, free recycling of fluorescent light bulbs and alkaline batteries, and environmental education during the main festival, which is free and open to the public. "It's one of the best events that the town comes together to put on each year," says JoAnn Fairchild, program manager for the college's Center for Environment & Society.
The various events might run the gamut, but a recurring theme in many colleges' Earth Day activities is an effort to give students opportunities for hands-on conservation efforts. Dorm energy reduction competitions held in honor of Earth Day, like the one at Sewanee: The University of the South or Colorado College, are becoming quite common. Students residing in campus dorms compete to see who can conserve the most energy. Officials at Sewanee say it allows students to see, measure and appreciate the results of their own conservation efforts. The campus bookstore at Lebanon Valley College has computers set up for students to calculate their own carbon footprints. And for the first time, seniors at Harper College, located just outside Chicago, will be donning green, biodegradable graduation gowns made from renewable, managed forests.
WPI's Orr says the ultimate goal for colleges is to get students to think more broadly, outside of the classroom. "It's not so much about putting the onus on the students, but to help them see how they can make a change on a community-wide basis," he says.
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