Features and Occasionals

Youth Action: Collaboration, Innovation and Sustainability

By Anna Albertsen

The University of Utah’s Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund.

About 150,000 honey bees living in a dozen hives call the University of Utah home. You’ll find them in the rooftop garden just off the third floor of the Marriott Library and also on a fourth floor balcony of the Olpin Union Building, where visitors to the Crimson Room restaurant can observe the bees through a locked sliding-glass door.

It’s a buzzing community, started in 2012, that came about through an important program called the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) which, over the last 10 years, has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into innovative, ecological student-led projects around campus.

The Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund was proposed by ASUU (Associated Students of the U of U) in 2008 as a way of increasing sustainable infrastructure on campus. It’s entirely student-funded, with $2.50 from each student’s tuition going to the program.

The fund furthers the plan to make the campus a “Living, Learning Laboratory” where students gain real world experience, collaborate across various departments and create change.  Candidates for funding, explains Emerson Andrews, SCIF coordinator, are projects “which maximize impact, remediate a problem and collaborate between multiple departments.”

The campus beehives started with a $1,800 SCIF grant awarded to Thomas Bench (BS ’13) who, already a bee enthusiast who maintained a bee hive as a hobby, saw the campus as an ideal place to install hives, teach beekeeping, increase the pollinator populations and educate his fellow students on the critical ecological role held by bees. Today, powered by two additional grants from SCIF, the University’s hives have expanded. The program is now entirely self-sufficient, supported by income from beekeeping class fees and the sale of the hives’ honey.

Last month an ambitious multi-departmental team received funding for an innovative solution to a critical infrastructure problem. Facilities managers have been struggling with water damage in a campus building—water has been draining from uphill and through the foundation. Students will remediate the problem by installing a pollinator garden. Rerouting the water through a plant-dense area will reduce run-off, resolving the flooding issue naturally. Sustainability, Engineering, Biology, Art, Architecture and Sociology departments are working together to create a functional space with native plants that will support a healthy ecosystem.

When it comes to moving projects from idea to action, Emerson Andrews’ role as coordinator is critical. He acts as a bridge between students and department heads. It’s work he says he truly enjoys. “I can help students feel empowered to utilize campus resources and leverage sustainability at the University,” explains Andrews, a longtime environmentalist.

A committee of eight, including students and staff of various departments, vote on which projects to support. So far, 149 projects have received funding with $900,000 given in total. The largest award, $84,000, was to improve heating and cooling in Kingsbury Hall. SCIF has funded other sustainable infrastructure projects such as solar panels, energy-efficient light bulbs and waste separation recy­cling stations.

Funding for sustainability education and awareness on campus has covered the purchase of educational films, environmental sociology surveys and ‘lights off’ stickers above switches.

SCIF also provides funding for environmentally conscious ‘ARTivism’ (art+activism) such as The Dying Spirit in the Salt Flats which speaks to the erosion and destruction of the Salt Flats as well as working phenology groups that film ecology on campus.

Jennifer Follstad Shah, assistant professor for the Sustainability program, is encouraging her students to acquire SCIF skills via her capstone classes. Seniors are required to identify a sustainability-related issue, develop an idea and propose a solution to SCIF or another community partner. “[Creating a proposal] makes students more aware about the process—how projects go from a concept to implementation,” says Shah. “It’s important for students to have hands-on experience with interdisciplinary, collaborative projects because that is something many leaving this major will be a part of in the future.”

Through their work as mentors in this program, Andrews and Shah both say that, in addition to the projects’ specific outcomes, their day-to-day communications have expanded across departments, and they as well as the students feel a stronger sense of community on campus and their place within it.

Anna Albertsen studies mycology, cares deeply about the environment and enjoys being a helpful and inspiring part of her community.

This article was originally published on May 31, 2018.