Taking a Close Look at America's Most Sustainable University

© UC DavisA worker installs solar panels on a building at the University of California - Davis.

Sierra magazine recently released its 2012 Cool Schools list, and the University of California – Davis came in at #1.

UC Davis is over-the-top thorough about all the nitty-gritty aspects of good stewardship. Lots of time and money go toward a well-rounded set of efforts, including being vigilant about using the school's purchasing power for good, diverting around 70 percent of its trash from landfills, and offering sound transportation solutions: On any given day, 20,000 bikes roam the campus.

The 5,300-acre campus ranked No. 1 among the 96 top colleges and universities surveyed.

“I’m going into my senior year, and for the past few years, I’ve seen UC Davis grow in efforts to put sustainably grown food and energy measures on campus,” said UC Davis student Tessa Artale, director of the Campus Center for the Environment. “Not only at the administrative level, but at the student level, I've seen a commitment to making UC Davis a model.”

As I did with last year’s #1 school, I wanted to go more in-depth on UC Davis’ accomplishments, so I spoke with Camille Kirk, the university’s Sustainability Planner for UC Davis.

Sarah Hodgdon: Why is it important for college and universities to lead the way in being green?

Camille Kirk: So often, we hear that higher education has a responsibility to tackle various societal issues, such as sustainability, because colleges and universities teach and train people. That's true!

Universities generate new knowledge and new technologies, and share that information and innovation with their students and the rest of society. From developing plug-in hybrid cars, to advising on water management policies, to teaching sustainable agriculture techniques, to undertaking deep energy efficiency, to pioneering renewable energy solutions, and much more, people in higher education work hard to help solve major social challenges.

SH: Why is it so important to do this great environmental work at UC-Davis?

CK: UC Davis has a long history of creatively tackling environmental issues. We have a real depth of expertise and a breadth of coverage that is remarkable. From faculty and student research across a broad range of leading issues (everything from how carbon pricing affects corporation valuation, to innovative plastics developed from wastewater) , to staff actions to creatively reduce energy and water use, and build a strong campus community, UC Davis is a powerhouse.

SH: What are some of the latest projects UC Davis is working on that only add to its title of Coolest School?

CK: UC Davis is working on a biodigester, which we'll use to convert our organic waste into renewable energy (biogas), we are working on projects to reduce our energy use on indoor and outdoor lighting use by 60% by 2015, as well as many projects to "tune up" our buildings to be more efficient and use less energy. We have recently launched an innovative bicycling education program to improve safety.

© UC Davis -- A crowded bike rack at the school.

SH: How did you react when you learned about your #1 ranking?

CK: We were very proud and excited to be recognized for all the work we are doing, and very encouraged to keep working hard on innovations and actions that will help us, and others, move forward towards a more sustainable future.

SH: How do you encourage the students to get involved in the school's many green projects?

CK: We are so lucky here at UC Davis -- we don't have to encourage students to get involved; on the contrary, they come to us with ideas and plans and interests! We also have a phenomenal number of student clubs and groups, many of which focus on sustainability-related issues.

Finally, at UC Davis, this is a real do-it-yourself kind of place: Students drive the (compressed-natural-gas-powered) buses, plant and harvest produce for their CSA program at the Student Farm, and cook the food in the Coffeehouse (reputed to be the largest student-run restaurant in the nation), and many undergraduate students work on research projects with their professors, to note a few ways students have an active role on campus. UC Davis students have tremendous opportunities to take charge of their education, in and out of the classroom.

© UC DavisStudents work on the farm at the University of California - Davis.

Camille added that the school has a self-guided sustainability tour map (PDF), too.

We’re proud to profile UC Davis’ accomplishments – and those of all the other Cool Schools that made the list. Did your school make it?

Tags: California | College Life | Education | Universities

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