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College Students School Peers on Sustainability

December 21, 2009

Chrissy Kadleck, Waste & Recycling News -- Imagine carolers merrily going door to door, spreading the timely message of energy reduction and passing out gifts of compact fluorescent light bulbs to those who kindly open their doors and listen. This idyllic scene is not an environmental fairy tale. It’s a real-life example of a new collegiate collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania.

Following the lead of similar successful programs at other college campuses around the country, the Philadelphia institution this fall launched Penn Eco-Reps, an inaugural group of 27 students who volunteered to become peer-to-peer educators and teach fellow students about smart eco-behavior to create a more sustainable campus.

The students, mostly freshmen, live among three residence halls and one fraternity house. Ten students live in Hill College House, 10 in Kings Court English College House, six in Rodin College House and one in Tau Epsilon Phi. For the first year, Penn’s Eco-Rep activities and outreach are targeted at the students who live in the four residences.

Stirred first by excessive food waste in the dining halls, Yibin Zhang said she wanted to be a part of the movement to motivate students to change their ways.

“The program is limited by what the students themselves are willing to do, so our role is to try and turn sustainability practices into habit,” said Zhang, an Eco-Rep in Kings Court and a freshman concentrating in mechanical engineering. “This includes making up catchy marketing slogans, reminding students of their responsibility to their environment, offering prizes, and free giveaways. Eventually, I hope to take this social change experience and combine it with my technical education to work in a sustainability field.”

The Eco-Reps, who collectively represent the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Nursing, Engineering and Applied Science as well as the Wharton Business School, are focusing on five of the university’s environmental commitments outlined in its Climate Action Plan: energy conservation, waste and recycling practices, water conservation strategies, alternative transportation, and consumer choices, said Julian Goreski, a sustainability associate who works closely with the reps.

The most effective learning is peer learning. By arming these students with good technical information, they can phrase it and frame it in a way that is most appealing to their peers and in a way that I would not be able to do as effectively,” said Dan Garofalo, Penn’s environmental sustainability coordinator. “We didn’t want to overprogram how the message gets out to the students because we wanted that to be organic, and we wanted the student Eco-Reps to be leaders in developing that strategy.”

With energy reduction a major focus for Penn, the first Eco-Rep campaign challenges students to “power down” before they leave campus for the holidays.

“We are asking students to unplug all their appliances, turn off all their lights and shut all their windows before leaving for winter break,” Goreski said. “It’s a competition between all the Eco-Rep houses to see who can get the highest percentage of students within their house to pledge to do the challenge.”

Energy data will be compared to last year’s to see the reductions. Garfolo said university utility teams will also do manual readings of all 12 college houses for the weeks prior to students’ depature, while students are away and when they come back to create a baseline for energy usage in all residence halls on campus.

Tacie Reger, a freshman in the nursing program who is an Eco-Rep in Hill College House, said that now the environment, recycling and energy conservation are always top of mind for her.

“I figure, if I’m going to be a nurse, how can I expect to take care of and respect a patient if I can’t even take care of and respect the earth?” she said.

Originally published in the December 21, 2009, issue of Waste & Recycling News.workerbee

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