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Research Station: Getting Started

How can I help my campus become a better environmental steward? What kind of project can I do for my class (and finish in one semester)? Who can help me get the information I need? Where do I start?

Whether you are a student, faculty, or staff, YOU can make a difference during your years on campus. Through campus-focused environmental projects, you can help reduce your college or university's environmental impact, bring greater attention to the issues, and nudge the institution toward a more sustainable future. Students in particular think they have little voice in what happens at their schools, but the truth is just the opposite: their voice can be a powerful force of change, but they often need to learn how to use it effectively. This online Research Station can be your guide.

When it comes to environmental responsibility and improvement, all campuses can do better and most have a long way to go. There is no shortage of potential projects. And unlike many other aspects of running a campus, environmental issues are everybody's concern. Not surprisingly, a wide cross-section of the campus population favors tackling issues that can lead to a "greener" institution. The secret to success is to engage those interested individuals, and work toward objectives you have in common.

Campus-focused environmental projects can be a win-win for everyone. For students, projects yield an extraordinary educational benefit. Students learn valuable technical know-how and people-skills as they participate in these all-too-rare experiences in applied problem-solving, teamwork and communication. And when the work leads to improvements and solutions to real campus problems, a sense of genuine accomplishment and contribution is achieved.

For faculty, staff, and administrators, the campus is a perfect laboratory for environmental change, and projects are a sure-fire way to invigorate instruction. "If we can't keep our own house in order," campus staff have said, "how can we help save the world—and what lessons do our actions teach the students?" On dozens of campuses, projects leading to environmental improvements have conserved resources, saved money, kept toxic materials out of the air and water, and inspired students and others to make environmental responsibility a permanent part of their lives.

In a 1998 article in World Watch magazine, William Mansfield sums up what happens when campuses embrace these ideas:

"This movement is tearing down walls between academia and campus operations, often creating model programs that offer valuable lessons for businesses, governments and communities. While these programs often cut operating costs and reduce the environmental impacts of the universities, they also help meet the desires of growing numbers of students to participate in environmental efforts. And they provide students with practical, job-related experience that buttresses their academic studies and enables them to apply classroom skills to solving real problems on campus."

What Counts as "Campus?" (back to top)

EcoLeaders places its primary emphasis on campus-related environmental issues—and in helping students get involved with those issues. This Research Station is organized with that focus in mind. A college or university offers a defined, understandable, and appropriately-sized setting for research and action. With campus-focused projects, the objects of study lie close at hand, there is often plenty of help available, and in such a "learning community" it is natural for even controversial environmental questions to be raised.

It is often said that environmental stewardship begins at home. With the campus being "home" to many students while in college, it is an ideal place to cultivate stewardship perspectives and skills. Working on campus projects, students can hone their abilities while learning from their successes and failures.

"Small Wins" (back to top)

Tackling modest, do-able projects on campus—where "small wins" can be more readily achieved—can give students and others the inspiration and confidence they often need to strive for larger goals. Later effectiveness in larger environmental arenas may hinge on the skills and attitudes acquired while doing projects in college.

Getting Started (back to top)

What kinds of environmental projects can be done? Students have been involved in everything from renovating college power plants to creating better labels for recycling bins to compiling data on transportation systems. Their work has touched nearly every aspect of campus operations. The most common types are:

For Credit

  • Campus-focused projects required by a course (done by the whole class, group or individual)
  • Required course projects whose topic is defined by the class, small group or individual
  • Independent-study projects


  • Projects initiated by student clubs or organizations
  • Service projects: group or individual

A word to the wise: Students tell us that the motivation to complete a project tends to be much stronger if it is done for a class or group effort. The first things to get put on the back-burner—and often forgotten—are tasks you don't have to do. Make sure someone on campus is expecting you to get the job done and done well.

Finding Allies, Knowing Your History (back to top)

If your campus has a history of supporting environmental-improvement projects, your ideas and efforts are more likely to be received favorably. If there is little or no precedent for campus stewardship, you may have to lead the way. There is strength in numbers; the more environmentally-minded people there are on campus—especially working together—the better.

Learn who the decision-makers are at your school. If you can find a "champion" for your idea—someone who can pull strings and get things done—you will have a powerful ally. Look into projects undertaken in the past to find contact names, useful data, and research methods that work (as well as those that did not). Knowing about environmental progress and "wins" of previous semesters will provide inspiration and a base of support on which to build.

Making the Link to Learning (back to top)

Campus "greening" may be occurring already at your school, pushed by committed staff members or forced by state or federal regulations. On many campuses, operations staff have taken the lead. At Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, for example, the physical plant director launched a 10-year, $1.8 million program in 1996 to retrofit the campus for energy efficiency, but students were not directly involved in the process. They were, however, involved indirectly through inter-dorm contests to save energy and other resources. Such staff-driven efforts are extremely valuable because they save resources—and significant amounts of money. But without student involvement, a powerful opportunity for education may be lost. At the very least, campus environmental success stories should be reported in student newspapers and in college classes as case studies. It would be inspiring for students to hear what had been, or currently is, happening around them.

Just as it is beneficial to retrofit a campus to take advantage of new and efficient technologies, it may also be possible to academically "retrofit" a campus greening project. Even a project that is underway or completed can still be tapped for its value as a learning opportunity. If you know of a situation where this has happened, let us know.

The Hidden Faculty (back to top)

An important side benefit of campus environmental projects is that students—as they seek out persons who have information they need—discover a whole new "hidden faculty" of steamfitters, registrars, landscapers, secretaries, and deans. Nearly everyone who works for the campus is an expert at what they do and most are excellent and willing teachers.

On some campuses, custodians have taught students about their methods for cleaning floors and handling recyclables. Health and safety staff have led tours of hazardous waste facilities ‹ a duty that is not in their job description but one they proudly perform. By actively bringing this vast, untapped resource into the learning community, the educational potential of a college can be dramatically increased.

What's In It For You? (back to top)

If you talk to students who have participated in campus-focused projects, you will hear first-hand how the experience was uniquely valued among other college courses. Due to the way most majors and course sequences are designed, students typically don't get to undertake campus projects until they are juniors or seniors. An often-heard comment is, "I wish I'd taken this course as a freshman; I could've gotten so much more out of other projects I've had to do, and would have known a lot more about the college." Regrettably, for all the potential that campus environmental projects hold—environmentally and educationally—the vast majority of the country's 14 million college students never participate in one, or if they do it happens only once.

On a practical note, campus environmental projects provide real-world life experiences; they are not just classroom exercises to be done in a rush and forgotten when the semester ends. Many students have presented their work at national conferences. Projects often result in valuable job-related skills and experiences that students include on their resumes. If done well, written project reports also can be listed. Good working relationships with campus staff and faculty frequently can lead to glowing letters of recommendation for jobs or graduate school. And at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—to cite one example—a number of students who worked on campus projects were later hired by their staff "clients" after graduation.

For faculty and staff, environmental projects are steps in an important process: the greening of a college or university. They are a means to save money, conserve resources, and enrich the curriculum. In many cases, without student interest and assistance, environmental stewardship projects simply would not have happened. There is often a high level of enthusiasm and momentum that builds around projects that are perceived as making important contributions to the campus. And not least, progress is made in protecting local, regional and global ecological integrity.

Launching Your Project (back to top)

The aim of this Research Station is to help you develop and carry out a successful project. Its sections explain the research process, show a number of alternative directions for project design, and provide a growing list of examples from which to draw ideas and inspiration. There is no single "best" approach. Every campus and each situation will present novel challenges that must be dealt with creatively. Here is your chance to dig into "the good stuff," as one student referred to her project experiences, and make the most of the project you undertake.

NEXT: Designing a Project

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