Climate Action Plan Sustainability Ambassador Course
The Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) ambassador course was piloted in the spring 2021 semester as an opportunity for students to have a direct role in assessing and recommending building-level actions to advance our campus sustainability goals. For the first half of the course, students learned about the iCAP and our objectives. Working in teams, students were then assigned to a building, conducted site visits, and completed a comprehensive sustainability assessment, which was presented to campus stakeholders. Student teams obtained building sustainability data in collaboration with campus staff, researched best practices, and recommended actionable priorities to advance and achieve our sustainability goals at the building-level across a variety of themes (e.g., energy, waste, transportation, land and water, and engagement). Five buildings were assessed with the goal to expand to additional campus buildings each year.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Institute of Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) oversees seven working advisory teams composed of students, faculty, and staff members. The teams are charged with developing recommendations to implement specific action items to improve our campus sustainability efforts and achieve our Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) 2020 goals. The Zero Waste Working Advisory Team submitted a recommendation in the spring of 2020 identifying the need for students to learn about local climate mitigation, campus sustainability, and enact change in support of our goals. The product of this recommendation was the development of a course that provided students with service-learning, leadership, and educational opportunities to become directly involved in the advancement of iCAP 2020 goals.
This course, piloted in spring 2021, aimed to provide such an opportunity. Students in the iCAP Sustainability Ambassador course conducted comprehensive building assessments and presented how sustainability initiatives can be implemented at the building-level in order to achieve greater campus-level goals. As a result, the building manager and occupants can become familiar with sustainability opportunities within their facility to ultimately support and implement the iCAP objectives, while increasing campus-wide engagement.
A typical approach to campus sustainability is top-down, where systemic change is driven by policies directed by administrators or campus leaders to enact programs with the expectation that campus units implement the initiatives. A bottom-up approach instead focuses on behavior change and a localized understanding (in our case at the building level) of what is needed to reduce the building’s environmental footprint, increase engagement, and improve sustainability initiatives to achieve our iCAP goals.
This course was designed to involve students in this bottom-up approach, and to develop a process and understanding of what is needed at the building-level to promote positive and sustainable change.
The fundamental goal of this course was to involve students in the campus sustainability and program implementation process using a building-level, bottom-up approach. The course was designed for students to become familiar with climate action policy and the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) 2020, and understand the role that buildings play in achieving our sustainability goals. Having this knowledge will allow us to focus efforts and increase sustainability where it is most needed, and acknowledge buildings and departments for their progress.
Students assessed building-level sustainability initiatives, researched feasibility of implementing new programs or infrastructure, and addressed opportunities for future implementation. Students were expected to research solutions to problems identified in the buildings and present a comprehensive assessment about current practices, barriers, and future opportunities to advance and achieve our sustainability goals.
The course objectives were for students to:
- Identify key areas of the intersection of iCAP objectives and campus buildings
- Survey buildings and conduct sustainability assessment and personnel behavior
- Develop a strategic plan to implement actionable changes to building infrastructure and personnel behavior
- Present recommendations to building staff and other stakeholders to advance and achieve iCAP 2020 goals
After proposing a 2-credit course curriculum to span the entirety of the spring semester, the course was approved to be housed in the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences department in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. A comprehensive checklist was developed in collaboration with campus students, staff, and faculty to provide structure for the sustainability assessments. The aim was to ensure that the checklist items provided a comprehensive overview of the building across a variety of sustainability themes.
The checklist was designed to:
- Obtain and communicate sustainability information about current building practices
- Establish baseline data for a building profile
- Obtain information from on-site data collection that is difficult to collect at the larger campus level
- Establish consistency across groups and buildings
- Present the building-level sustainability story and big-picture assessment
The building assessment checklist provided an analysis of the comprehensive sustainability story by providing an analysis of the building profile, energy, waste, land and water, transportation, and engagement initiatives. The checklist was initially drafted by a dedicated student, then several subject matter experts at Facilities & Services provided suggested questions and issues to assess, and finally the course instructors at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment fine-tuned and completed the checklist template.
In order to complete the sustainability assessment for an assigned building, each student team worked with a committed facility liaison. Facility liaisons from specific buildings on campus agreed to serve as mentors for the student groups by providing guidance and assistance in collecting the data and an understanding of the history and inner workings of the building.
The project was initially proposed as a pilot course recommendation in April 2020 to the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment. During the summer months, sustainability staff (e.g., Sustainability Coordinator, Academic Instructor/Advisor, Associate Director for Campus Sustainability) discussed and researched the feasibility of the course and developed a curriculum outline, paying particular attention to how this course satisfies a need not covered in other curricula or campus opportunities. The iSEE Academic Advisor/Instructor and Sustainability Programs Coordinator instructed the course, with the help of a dedicated student.
In November 2020, the course was approved by the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) department for addition in the spring semester course catalog. The course was approved as a 2-credit, 16-week field course to satisfy one of the two required field courses that NRES students take to earn their degree.
In fall 2020, Facilities & Services and iSEE worked to explain the course to selected facility liaisons, who then expressed their willingness to serve as a liaison for the course. Five facility liaisons, individuals who oversee building infrastructure and operations, agreed to mentor the student teams throughout the semester. The course was launched at the start of the spring semester in January 2021.
The first five weeks of the course focused on introducing the students to local and global environmental problems, the Illinois Climate Action Plan process and goals, campus building components, and human behavior as it relates to sustainability, environmental action, and climate policies. Staff and faculty members were invited as guest lecturers and experts in a particular sustainability theme to provide an overview of the topic as it relates to campus buildings and sustainability initiatives.
The following ten weeks of the semester focused on building site visits by students. Each week, one class period was allotted for meeting with facility liaisons and visiting buildings to compile a sustainability assessment. The class period following the site visit, students would participate in a discussion with their peers to share their progress and findings. Throughout the assessment process, students researched sustainability best practices and worked to develop recommendation ideas on how to achieve certain iCAP goals and improve building sustainability initiatives. Each student team presented their findings and recommendations at a presentation ceremony to facility liaisons and sustainability stakeholders at the end of the semester.
There was no upfront cost of the project. Two instructors each dedicated approximately 8 hours per week to the course.
Twenty-six students enrolled in the spring 2021 course. They were divided into teams of three to five people to assess the five campus buildings. The buildings surveyed encompassed multiple functions including educational, office, and recreational spaces. A comprehensive building checklist was developed with 68 items to analyze over six sustainability themes, to ultimately present a comprehensive building-level sustainability assessment. Additionally, students were encouraged to create more checklist items throughout the course as they deepened their understanding and knowledge about their assigned building. Checklist items include, for example:
- How many labs exist in the building?
- Are there building envelopes (doors or windows)? Do the doors have weather stripping? Can you feel wind through the door and are there visible gaps to the outside? If so, how many and where?
- Are there spaces in the building that are not used or occupied?
- Are there trash receptacles without a paired recycling bin? If so, where?
- How many of the water fixtures are low-flow?
- Are there programs that incentivize faculty and staff carpooling?
- What are the building communication channels?
At the end of the semester, student teams submitted a final report and assessment of their building. They presented their findings and recommendations in a presentation ceremony at the end of the spring 2021 semester. These presentations were recorded on Zoom and can be publicly viewed online at the link below.
Results of the assessments are currently under review. Based on the recommendations, specific actions will be presented to campus decision-makers for implementation.
The positive interaction and collaboration between students, staff, and their facility liaisons exceeded expectations; students became very familiar with the inner workings and challenges that their building faced. Students learned about the issues, complex processes, and opportunities at the building-level to advance our campus sustainability goals, and developed the knowledge of how to promote change.
Students indicated that they appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with campus staff, develop actionable recommendations, and promote campus sustainability improvements. Facility liaisons in the buildings are interested in sustainability improvements and appreciate the student recommendations and engagement.
The course provided a significant learning and leadership opportunity for building managers and staff, in addition to the students. It provided a big-picture perspective of the challenges we face at various stages of our institution and established a unique opportunity for collaboration between students, faculty, and staff with the common goal of advancing and achieving iCAP 2020 goals. Students gained practical knowledge and had a unique opportunity of interacting with campus staff. This course increased stakeholder involvement in sustainability on the University of Illinois Campus as well as increased communication between students, faculty, and staff regarding the current state of campus sustainability.
The majority of students reported that they have a greater understanding of campus sustainability, felt that their participation in the course had a direct impact on campus sustainability efforts, and they would participate again if given the opportunity. They developed a first-hand understanding of what sustainability means to our campus, how it relates to our campus buildings, and how we all play a part in achieving our greater campus sustainability goals.
Overall, both top-down and bottom-up approaches are essential to advancing campus sustainability efforts. System-wide policies should be paired with a local understanding of what is needed to advance sustainability efforts and achieve campus-wide goals. The success of this pilot program will continue to be evaluated, and the goal is to expand this project across additional campus buildings each year.