Colleges and universities are increasingly looking for ways to increase their sustainability in all aspects — from curriculum to food service to building operations. Sharing best practices and talking through challenges was the focus at the recent national conference in Pittsburgh of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, known as AASHE. I was glad to have an opportunity to attend.

The conference began with a student summit featuring prominent environmentalist and popular author on climate change, Bill McKibben, the founder of the 350.org, a grassroots environmental movement that has organized demonstrations in nearly every country around the world.

Many schools are making huge changes in response to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which hundreds of colleges and universities around the countries have signed on to in order to reduce their impact on climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, energy conservation and other sustainable practices. In some cases, participating schools have funded a complete redesign of their energy system in order to meet the goals of the ACUPCC.  Butte College in California is one such example, and is now the nation’s first grid positive college receiving all of their energy from solar and geothermal power.

But smaller changes can also make a big difference. The conference highlighted changes students, staff and faculty members can make in their daily lives that can have a significant environmental impact, and save money.

One of our local institutions, Chatham University, has been working diligently with both faculty and staff to develop a program that will address its campus environmental sustainability. Through a partnership with faculty and staff, they conducted campus-wide studies to understand the beliefs that students, faculty and staff hold regarding sustainability and their place and ability to effect change. Those findings have lead to efforts to leverage that knowledge to create effective programs.

So far they have found that undergraduates feel they don’t have enough information to make a change. In response, Chatham’s sustainability team created a game called “What Would Rachel Do?” distributing environmental information and facts through trivia inspired by the mother of the modern environmental movement and Chatham alumna Rachel Carson.

Our other local universities aren’t lagging in the sustainability department either. I spoke with a representative from the University of Pittsburgh, who mentioned they have 12 projects in development for LEED certification, including the extension to the Graduate School of Public Health. Carnegie Mellon University also recently made public their plans for the campus over the next decade, which include numerous building upgrades, making their corridor of Forbes Avenue  more pedestrian- and bike-friendly and creating a meaningful public space for the school’s community.

David Orr, a world-renowned environmentalist and proponent of ecological design from Ohio’s Oberlin College, explained in his keynote speech that energy conservation is the fastest and easiest way to save energy, and is something that can be done even for those lacking the budget to make the large infrastructure changes needed to reduce fossil fuel consumption and thus reduce their carbon footprint. This is true not just for higher education but for everyone, and is something Sustainable Pittsburgh is promoting through the Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge. Our staff at the Allegheny Conference will be participating as observers in the challenge, and I will be sure to share the best practices learned from AASHE with my colleagues here as we begin to roll out this effort.