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St. Olaf student's idea sparks Campus Ecology class
April 26, 2004
In a first-year course on "The Culture of Nature," Elise Braaten '04 was amazed that so few students understood their own immediate environment and suggested that there needed to be a course to help the St. Olaf community become more ecologically responsible.
This year, she designed that class and now she's teaching it with American Studies professor Jim Farrell. The course is the senior project of Braaten's innovative major, "Wild and Precious Life: Educating for an Ethic of Sustainability," designed in St. Olaf's Center for Integrative Studies.
|Braaten teaches "The Culture of Nature" with faculty member Jim Farrell.|
The course has also introduced students to nationally renowned speakers and engaged them in imaginative assignments such as examining the environmental impacts of their own dorm rooms and writing from the perspective of other organisms on campus such as ants, squirrels, flowers and trees.
Together, Braaten and Farrell have affected and reflected a new level of student involvement in environmental matters on campus. The Campus Ecology class, the 40-member Environmental Coalition, which Braaten co-leads, and the campus Sustainability Task Force, headed by Director of Facilities Pete Sandberg, presented a variety of Earth Week events in April and continue to explore the topic on campus.
Facts that Campus Ecology students have collected to raise awareness of "green" issues on campus have been posted, for example, near everyday objects to build awareness of environmental impacts at the college.
Signs near bathroom sinks might read: "This water comes to you courtesy of the Jordan aquifer, which recharges at a very slow rate. Some of Minnesota's groundwater entered the system more than 30,000 years ago and is still moving underground."
And signs on coffee machines at campus eateries say: "The Peace Coffee brewed in the Cage and the cafeteria makes good things happen because it's fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, supporting workers and the environment in countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica."
Farrell defines sustainability as "the art of assuring that people in the future will have what they need to lead fulfilling lives." By adopting and acting on a set of environmental principles developed by the task force, St. Olaf can be among the greenest campuses in the nation, Farrell says.
In the 2003-04 academic year the college has accomplished several environmental tasks: * Restored seven wetlands. * Applied for a grant to install a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine. * Hired consultants to help with green designs for the new natural sciences and mathematics complex. * Made plans to install a composter by fall to compost all campus food scraps.
Although Braaten graduates this year -- pursuing environmental education either in the Peace Corps or as coordinator for Planet Drum in the "eco-city" in Bahia de Caraquez on the Ecuadoran coast -- her brainchild, the Campus Ecology class, will continue at St. Olaf, moving from American Studies to the Environmental Studies department.
"The Campus Ecology class has proven to be a fantastic way for students to see the positive impact they can have on their surroundings," says Farrell. "Our hope is that after the students graduate they will take what they have learned into the organizations and companies they join to help them to become ecological stewards, as well," Farrell says.
Signs of change
During Earth Week, some students posted warning signs about the environmental impact human beings make on campus, including:
* Xcel Energy makes most of its electricity from burning coal, which contributes to global climate change.
* There are 1,623 parking places on campus, which is one of the ways that the college caters to cars.
* For each gallon of gas we use, we put 20 pounds of pollution into the air. Gasoline is about 85 percent carbon, and as the gas burns in the car engine, the carbon is released into the air, where it combines with oxygen to become carbon dioxide, which weighs four times as much as the original carbon. A car may get 20 miles per gallon, but it also emit 20 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. This car, and other cars like it, are responsible for about one-third of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions in the US, and these emissions are the major cause of global climate change.
* A car is a way of breathing. Like people, cars inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide (among other gases and particulates). So when we drive, we basically expand our lungs and increase our environmental impacts exponentially.
* Sleep is a good thing -- for computers. In sleep mode, the average electrical consumption of a personal computer drops by almost 69 percent.
* If you're breathing now, you're inhaling air that's been transformed in the last 100 years. It's not the same as the air that the first students at St. Olaf College breathed. In the 19th century, Oles inhaled air that contained carbon dioxide in concentrations of 280 parts per million. These days, we still suck in carbon dioxide, but we breathe 360 parts per million. Eighty parts per million sounds like no big deal, but it's enough to affect the global climate.
* St. Olaf College created five new wetlands this year. Do you know where your wetlands are?
* The big bluestem in front of the Science Center is a native prairie plant. It can grow to heights of three to 10 feet. But even more impressive, its roots can grow to depths of 10 feet.
* Many of us worry about rainforest destruction, but we live in a place where humans have destroyed 99 percent of the original ecosystem -- the tallgrass prairie.
* St. Olaf students produce just 2.2 ounces of plate waste per day. In September, with the new composter, all of that waste will be composted.
* If St. Olaf gets the grant to build a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine on campus, the college will be in compliance with the Kyoto Accords on climate control.
* Xcel offers a lower rate to customers who agree to reduce electrical load during peak-use periods. Residential customers get a break, for example, if they agree to let Xcel turn off their air conditioners for short periods on the hottest days of the year. St. Olaf is in an even stronger position than most customers, because we own generators that can supply all our power at any time.
As a result, we save about $150,000 a year on our electric bill. And with our back-up capability, we have 100 percent redundancy in power production. When the lights go out in Northfield, they don't stay out at St. Olaf.