Student Grants Key to Sustainability and Climate Initiatives

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By Alecia Hoene, Communications Coordinator, Environmental Science & Water Resources Programs, University of Idaho

(This article appears in the March, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Six years ago the University of Idaho established a student-run Sustainability Center (UISC), one of the few such campus centers in the western United States at that time. The University set a precedent for creating opportunities for students to learn sustainability practices by initiating research and projects which are a core component of the climate neutrality and sustainability education efforts of the university, and has shown the tangible benefits of financing student-innovations as a component of our broader strategic goals.

The student-run office is critical in fostering a culture of sustainability at the University of Idaho. UISC works to increase participation and collaboration among students, faculty, staff and community members in addressing a wide array of sustainability issues. Central to this success is the Student Grants Program, UISC’s flagship program, which has funded more than $110,000 in student grants. Grant recipients hail from myriad departments across the university, driving an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability solutions and inspiring broad-based grassroots change. The grant program supports UISC’s mission to engage students in projects supporting the triple bottom line of sustainability for our campus and community and enables students to use the campus as a laboratory for creating sustainable solutions and programs. Through the UISC Student Grant Program, students are able to create their own local solution to global issues. They are developing a sense of their place in the broader world, a sense of the power they have to effect change, and have begun honing the skills they will use to build healthier, more sustainable communities.

Student participation in the grant program contributes directly to their practical knowledge and career qualifications. UISC grant participants partner with other students, faculty, staff, and community members to integrate sustainability into university academics and operations. Through this process they build vital skills – e.g., project management, collaboration and teamwork, technology, communications, and leadership – that benefit their education and prepare them for careers beyond graduation.

While UISC solicits grant proposals on a variety of topics – food systems, waste reduction, culture shift, energy efficiency, and more – many funded projects underscore the broader goal of addressing climate change and helping the University of Idaho reach its goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2030. The following projects showcase this effort.

Gabe Garcia, a junior in molecular biology and biotechnology, received a$2,700 grant to research biochar as a soil amendment. The purpose of this project is to determine if charcoal (biochar) is useful in increasing the rate at which food and animal wastes decompose. If this project yields compelling, positive results the University of Idaho could modify its biomass powered steam plant to produce biochar, which would be a significant source of carbon sequestration for the university.

I feel that my project is meaningful to the sustainability of the University of Idaho campus because this data helps determine if adding biochar to compostable waste is beneficial. If it is beneficial to composting and if it’s prudent to add this to our soil then it could reduce the amount of fertilizer use and runoff, sequester carbon and reduce soil greenhouse gas emissions.” – Gabe Garcia

Garry Whitebird, a graduate student in natural resources and environment science, received $1,912 for promoting bicycle transportation and safety. Garry will work with a local bike shop and the university’s cycling club to supply and install discounted bicycle light sets for participants at the biannual Bike Fix event hosted by the UISC, equipping students for safe bicycle travel at night.  This improvement will encourage increased bicycle use and a shift away from motor vehicle usage, thereby reducing carbon emissions related to university commuters.

I am very thankful that the UI Sustainability Center has awarded me the opportunity to promote alternative transportation on the University of Idaho campus. There is a lot of cycling support in the community which provides students an excellent opportunity to pedal to campus and around town instead of driving their vehicles and, in turn, can reduce harmful emissions. I am also grateful to be working with such great cycling advocates like Paradise Creek Bicycles and the Idaho Vandal Cycling Team. By working with these partners to make cycling safer, I hope to show students that they can do their part to reduce harmful emissions and reduce UI’s negative contributions toward climate change.

– Garry Whitebird

Matthew Aghai, a graduate student in natural resources, received $3,000 to improve water and nutrient use efficiency at the university’s Pitkin Forest Nursery. To improve water and nutrient use efficiency, this grant will fund the conversion of two greenhouse benches, a portion of crop production, to a subirrigation system capable of producing 4,000-7,000 seedlings. The anticipated result is a 30% decrease in water consumption.

“Installing a sub-irrigation system at the nursery will be a step towards reducing water consumption, fertilizer run-off, and waste during seedlings production. This collaboration with the UISC will hopefully set an example to students at the nursery and on campus, as well as plant producers in the region.” – Matthew Aghai

Wieteke Holthuijzen received $3,000 to fund the construction of a new hoophouse at the student-run organic farm. The goal of Holthuijzen’s project is to increase the use of fresh, locally produced food at the cafeteria by expanding the farm’s capacity. The hoop house will extend the growing season and increase production capacity from early spring to fall, and serve as a living laboratory, giving students and beginning farmers the chance to research, explore, apply and model principles of sustainable food production.

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world.”  By working with the UI Soil Stewards, the UISC and Sodexo (campus dining), I know that together we are taking steps to bring local and seasonal foods to students.  It may seem like a small simple action but in the long run it will make a huge difference in terms of CO2 emission reduction and the overall sustainability of the University of Idaho’s food systems. – Wieteke Holthuijzen

1 Lehmann, J. and Joseph, S. (eds) (2009) Biochar for Environmental Management. Earthscan: London