Virginia Tech to enhance sustainability-focused experiential learning
Virginia Tech is bolstering its climate action curriculum, delivering on a pledge to more deeply integrate 2020 Climate Action Commitment efforts into the university’s educational mission and engage more students in hands-on learning opportunities around sustainability.
Over 50 academic and operational leaders came together at a Sept. 17 retreat to discuss this charge and brainstorm pathways to bring the new Climate Action Living Laboratory (also referred to as “CALL”) to fruition through institutional and resource planning.
Building bridges between academics and operations and among faculty, staff, and ultimately students, the Climate Action Living Laboratory will deliver a formalized structure for coordinating climate action teaching, research, and outreach.
A major opportunity for the living laboratory is integrating physical Climate Action Commitment projects initiated by the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, Student Affairs, University Libraries, and other units, into instruction and research.
Climate action-related curriculum — in clean energy, social equity, innovative financing, and more — will be enhanced through new experiential-learning opportunities on the Blacksburg campus and beyond. Implementation of the Climate Action Commitment will also be boosted through faculty and student expertise gained through hands-on discovery.
At present, more than 900 courses and 67 departments at Virginia Tech incorporate climate and sustainability concepts. There are also over 50 climate action-related Pathways courses, a multitude of which include immersive experiences on the Blacksburg campus.
“The Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities’ Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Energy recognizes the top-notch opportunities for student learning, faculty, and student technical research, and staff development associated with Climate Action Commitment implementation,” said John Randolph, Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow for Climate Action.
“More than 90 faculty from every college at Virginia Tech have expressed interest in participating in the Climate Action Living Laboratory. This eagerness and perhaps, more importantly, willingness to put in the work to bring it to life is incredibly exciting and representative of a university-wide dedication to achieving sustainable and just climate action.”
“The Climate Action Living Laboratory does not seek to replicate or absorb all of the great climate-related teaching, research, and outreach happening here at Virginia Tech, but rather to elevate and coordinate these efforts. We have a real opportunity to force-multiply the work happening on both the academic and operations sides of the house as Virginia Tech steps up to tackle the climate emergency and equip a new generation of climate champions,” said Todd Schenk, associate professor in the School of Public & International Affairs within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
Hands-on student learning, research experiences
Solar implementation, encouraging sustainable behaviors, and reducing food waste are among the many initiatives ripe for student and faculty engagement on the Blacksburg campus.
During the 2020-21 academic year, students on the Industrial Systems Engineering Senior Design Team 46 developed and executed a solar array project on the roof of Durham Hall, delivering 100 percent renewable power to the Learning Factory.
The team implemented a renewable energy generation system, including nine solar panels, that will offset the power demands of the Learning Factory in its current state, as well as its future state, once new equipment is added to the space.
Virginia Tech’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory is another climate action project realized through student involvement. Working alongside Associate Professor of Practice and Green Engineering Director Sean McGinnis, students minoring in green engineering developed the latest university Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory and are currently working on inventorying emissions related to food in dining halls. The annual inventory is a critical data study to measure Virginia Tech’s progress towards a carbon-neutral university by 2030, a tenet of the Climate Action Commitment.
“The Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities is ready to partner with faculty and students in opening up the Blacksburg campus in pursuit of climate action," said Mary-Ann Ibeziako, assistant vice president for infrastructure and sustainability and chief sustainability officer. "Education is a catalyst for long-term sustainable impact as we implement the commitment’s physical goals — improving building energy systems and achieving carbon neutrality, 100 percent renewable electricity, and zero waste campus status by 2030. Advancing the commitment’s non-physical goals —integrating student, employee, and community member voices in sustainability implementation efforts, and furthering outreach to communities adversely affected by climate action implementation plans — will also rely heavily on education."
Climate Action Living Laboratory: Next steps
The next steps in developing the Climate Action Living Laboratory include establishing an institutional home; integrating the lab with university initiatives like Climate Action Commitment implementation and Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS); solidifying program leadership; and devising strategies to enhance coordination among and visibility of existing sustainability-related academic programs.
The Climate Action Living Laboratory plans to incorporate ARECs and other Virginia Tech campuses in implementation efforts. Further coordination activities include the development of dashboards to measure progress and additional mechanisms to coordinate academic activities, including research proposals.
Faculty and staff interested in getting engaged with the living laboratory can contact John Randolph.