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Learning skills for sustainable living

By James Daly '13
October 5, 2012

St. Olaf students (from left) Andi Gomoll '13, Tyler Nielsen '13, and Lauren Kramer '13 designed the new SustainAbilities initiative this summer as part of the college's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. Photos by Will Lutterman '15

When new students arrived at St. Olaf College this fall, one of the first things they began learning was how to live sustainably in the residence halls.

That focus on eco-friendly dorm life is part of the new SustainAbilities program. This cocurricular, peer-education program is designed to give students practical skills they can use to lead sustainable lives.

Three students — Andi Gomoll '13, Tyler Nielsen '13, and Lauren Kramer '13 — developed the initiative this summer alongside Professor of History Jim Farrell as part of the college's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

"The goal of SustainAbilities is to create more ecological citizens," says Gomoll. "St. Olaf already has a mission to create global citizens. We're really trying to tie ecology in that because it is related to everything."

One of the key components of SustainAbilities is the creation of sustainability representatives. The 11 sustainability representatives (one for each residence hall and one coordinator) are employed through Residence Life and are responsible for organizing experiential activities that encourage students to contemplate how their lives relate to the environment.

Other elements of SustainAbilities include a green room certification process and a new website that features a blog, a listing of courses focused on sustainability, a calendar of sustainability events on campus, and practical advice about topics such as eating locally.

The green room certification allows students to complete a survey regarding their environmental behaviors to qualify their room as "green" and receive a certificate to place on their door.

A SustainAbilities sign in a residence hall bathroom reminds St. Olaf students that water conservation can begin with even the most mundane of tasks: shaving.

Gomoll, Nielsen, and Kramer, who met weekly with Director of Residence Life Pamela McDowell, designed SustainAbilities' programming so that in future years it will be tailored for each class of students. First-year students will focus on campus sustainability; sophomores on Northfield sustainability; juniors on political and civic engagement; and seniors on sustainable lifestyles and continuing political and civic engagement after they graduate.

SustainAbilities was created in response to the values and expectations of current students, says Farrell. He cites an environmental values survey he gives each year to incoming first-year students that has yielded consistent results.

"They basically say they are environmentalists, that they think environmental literacy is an important part of a college education, and that they expect to learn how to live sustainably in the residence halls," he says.

Regarding his CURI students, Farrell has nothing but praise for their work. "Usually I can keep up with my research students, but the three of them together just blew past me," he says. "They are a perfect example of applied student research and collaboration."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.