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A Learning Landscape

Living, Maintaining and Teaching Sustainability
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It’s the 1980s and the Southland is a thriving, bustling region criss-crossed by freeways and almost notorious for the slight gray haze that can be seen against the backdrop of the mountains.

At Cal State Fullerton, on such a day, there is an orange flag flying outside one of the facility operation centers to indicate the air quality, orange meaning “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” In Langsdorf Hall, a faculty member is working to answer the question of how many dollars this air pollution is costing Southern California in public health.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District-funded study, led by environmental economist Jane V. Hall with researchers from campus and other local institutions, would ultimately report that the cost of that slight gray haze over the greater Los Angeles area was $9.4 billion a year.

Afterward, “the SCAQMD started to make serious inroads trying to clean the air in and around Los Angeles, and it came out with the nitrogen dioxide requirement that forced our campus to replace its heating and cooling equipment,” remembers Willem van der Pol, who retired in June as interim associate vice president of facilities operations and management.

“In hindsight, this marks a turning point in the history of our campus as we started a long trend of cutting our energy usage back and using cleaner processes.”

Changing Campus Culture

Thirty years later, Cal State Fullerton can stand behind a strong campus culture focused on sustainability practices, not just in building and maintaining facilities and grounds, but in the classroom as well.

“The issue is figuring out how humankind can co-exist with nature,” says van der Pol, who joined Cal State Fullerton in 1986 and was a driving force in the efforts to build and maintain an environmentally responsible and green physical campus.

“We have the leadership capacity in sustainability in both the academic and facilities areas,” notes John Bock, professor of anthropology and founding director of the University’s Center for Sustainability. “If we take advantage of this opportunity, CSUF will emerge as one of the leaders in sustainability in the CSU and statewide across higher education.”

Since the late 1980s, CSUF has ramped up efforts on heating and air conditioning upgrades, asbestos abatement and strategic planning for the future. When opportunities arose for the integration of electric vehicles on campus, the University jumped at the chance. To meet increasing power needs, CSUF built a state-of-the-art, all-electrical central plant in 1990 and became a zero on-site emissions facility.

In 2010, the campus installed a trigeneration plant that met roughly half of all of its energy needs through high-pressure natural gas to generate electricity and waste energy to heat and chill water.

Two years later, the campus completed a solar-energy network that produces 1.16 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, and became the first university in the state awarded a Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council for its newest student housing complex. The Student Recreation Center, opened in 2008, had earned gold LEED certification; five other campus facilities are silver LEED equivalent.

Green cleaning supplies are in use; well over 50 percent of solid waste is recycled; and plant waste is composted. Open areas feature drought-tolerant and native plants, swales that gather rainwater and irrigation metering to make sure water is used efficiently.

The University’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, CSUF has received several statewide
sustainability best-practice awards for building design, energy efficiency and upgrades to lighting. This year, it received two first-place awards for energy and lighting efficiency, as well as an honorable mention for its water-saving efforts.

“We are now looking forward to building a four-megawatt photovoltaic system and combining that with a battery system to store energy at low-demand times and shave our peak usage during high demand,” says van der Pol. “We also are working with local authorities to develop a stormwater retention plan for the campus.”

“CSU Fullerton is working to go off the grid completely, and it’s two-thirds of the way there. With its 2012 solar installations, the University is offsetting more than 26.422 tons of greenhouse gas each year, which is equivalent to taking almost 5,181 cars off the road in the next 25 years.”

— In April 2015, Cal State Fullerton was No. 7 in Energy Magazine’s listing of top 10 campuses for solar energy generation.


Creating Future Sustainability Leaders

In 1976, CSUF became one of the first campuses to offer a master’s degree in environmental studies, a cross-discipline program that has students working on projects with community partners, government agencies and environmental consultants.

In classrooms across campus, faculty members have expanded the number of courses where sustainability is the main focus or a related part of the curriculum. Entering freshmen, through a “sustainability pathway,” can take three to five general education classes in anthropology, geography, liberal studies, sociology and political science with a focus on green issues.

“As our world changes and we become more aware of the limitations in natural resources, Cal State Fullerton has stepped up to the plate in incorporating the principles of sustainability into the curriculum,” says Scott Hewitt, interim University librarian, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a leader in developing programs that enhance students’ educational experiences in sustainability and environmental issues.

In one recent course on plant physiology and ecology, students studied the effects of state-mandated irrigation reductions on campus trees. Such information will improve current watering practices and help with future landscape planning.

“Responsible use of resources is imperative to the sustainability of our planet, so sustainable practices should be included in the curriculum whenever possible. Applying these practices on our campus, not just in the classroom, is really a no-brainer, since we are a community that prides itself on intelligent and responsible actions,” explains Darren Sandquist, professor of biological science, who revised the course under a CSU “Campus as a Living Lab” grant, established to partner faculty members and facilities management staff.

Through one campus program, part of the California State University STEM Collaboratives Project, first-semester science and mathematics students take an introductory course that has them conducting hands-on investigations, such as assessing the feasibility of capturing gray water for alternative uses and performing data analysis of campus police vehicle emissions. The course focuses on learning strategies and quantitative reasoning while stressing the practical applications related to ecology.

Budding scholars in programs like Biology Undergraduate Research Scholars Training (BURST) and the Southern California Ecosystems Research Program (SCERP) are working alongside faculty members in wide-ranging research projects that teach the value of science and the importance of sustainability.

But students aren’t just learning — they are leading. Two years ago during Earth Week, a student-organized annual event that emphasizes sustainability and green practices, they began an effort to convince their peers to switch from bottled water to reusable containers and use water refilling stations throughout campus. Other Titans surveyed campus bathroom sinks to measure faucet flow rates, then funded new low-flow aerators.

Beyond the campus and the classroom, students and faculty members are increasing awareness in their neighborhoods through programs like the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE), which brings campus and community partners together to conduct research and outreach. Partners like the Fullerton Arboretum and local K-12 schools have made it possible for students of all ages to learn and share their knowledge. 

“U-ACRE has been widely recognized as a national model of community engagement in sustainability,” says Bock. “Through the Center for Sustainability and classes, approximately 400 students participate in service-learning each year related to sustainability, and faculty members are working on an EPA Sustainable Communities Program to integrate service-learning courses with Orange County municipal governments.

“We are at a time where we have reached critical mass in sustainability in a number of areas,” he adds. “Everywhere we look, we are educating students to what it means to live and work in our complex environment.”