Campus as a Lab: Part 1

diagram of connections between campus operations, research, curriculum, institutional sustainability, and living laboratoriesSource: Rutgers Living Laboratories

Campus as a lab (CAL) is becoming a teaching and organizational tool across campuses. I am including a schematic diagram of the dynamics of the concept, taken from the Rutgers University site, above. If you Google “Campus as a Lab,” you will get a handful of results but if you Google “College as a Lab,” you’ll only get a single entry. I am using the two terms interchangeably for reasons that I will elaborate on next week. In this blog, I will summarize aspects of the efforts taken at a few randomly selected campuses; next week, I will summarize some of my thoughts about its implementation elsewhere.

Here’s the general concept, taken from Campus as Living Lab.org:

The Campus as Living Lab Framework provides a systematic description of innovation projects combining campus and local/regional sustainability, research mobilization, student learning, civil society towards societal challenges.

The Framework is developed for practitioners setting up or managing Living Labs in and around University Campuses, such as Sustainability Coordination Officers (SCOs). Initial Living Labs for Sustainability can be set up and handled as projects, as they have a beginning and most probably as well a clear end of financial resources but as engagement- and empowerment processes are time consuming processes and are based on trust, they have to be considered as well as continuously ongoing processes. In co-creation meetings ideas have to be developed and research questions defined out of them, with changing participants and stakeholders. With this understanding the once started process has a big potential but demands as well responsible interacting and tailored communication plans to provide and share information with each stakeholder to keep the empowerment process ongoing.

A list of Columbia University’s individual offerings, based on its past efforts, is given below. The website includes descriptions of each project:

  • Proposing Offsets and Standards for Columbia’s Transportation Emissions
  • Advancing Sustainability at Faculty House
  • Water Exploratory to Inform Sustainability Planning
  • Campaign to Reduce Columbia-related Travel
  • Quantifying GHG Emissions from Air Travel
  • Commute and Fleet Emissions Data Analysis
  • Intercampus Shuttle Opportunities for Efficiency and Service Improvements
  • Break the Ice
  • SIPA Zero Waste & Sustain-a-Bottle
  • Cup It
  • Pedal 2 Power
  • Columbia Watermark Initiative

Not surprisingly, the Columbia task list, like most other campuses’ efforts, reads more like an advertisement for how well their campuses do at making schools more sustainable. Students, faculty, and administrators are involved in the efforts but an element that is missing is an evaluation of what students are learning from their participation in the effort.

Meanwhile, Duke University provides examples of the sites that it uses for CAL:

What are examples of CAL sites?

Duke University is home to a wide variety of buildings, ecosystems, and other spaces on campus that provide opportunities for students to apply what is learned in the classroom in the real world. Examples of these on-campus sites that are exemplary models of the Campus as Lab program ethos include the Duke Forest, Duke’s Reclamation Pond, a wide variety of sustainable buildings on campus (e.g. Student Wellness Center and Environment Hall), the Duke Campus Farm, and many more. These sites are a representation of the CAL program’s goal to bridge on-campus issues and their solutions with the global issues they represent. The CAL program hopes that by tying world issues to a tangible on-campus site that students will be able to connect their course learnings and campus experiences to better understand world issues. A CAL-endorsed site serves as an excellent starting point to learn about global problems, to be inspired to complete a CAL project, or to even appreciate the Duke campus a little more.

Princeton’s action plan includes details for projects to:

It also provides a detailed plan for 2026 and beyond.

All of this sounds good. Much of this is student-driven because many students are at an age when they want to contribute to making the world a better place. I am taking part in some similar initiatives focused on fighting climate change and decreasing the use of single-use plastics (SUP). However, almost by their nature, these programs are designed to change the schools, not necessarily to educate the students. Most academic institutions are proud to have rules that restrict academic decisions to faculty councils and committees. Administrators always have a say on such issues because, among other considerations, they involve budgetary issues. However, they don’t get a vote in these academic decisions.

I wrote before about the intricacies of academic politics (December 28, 2021). In that blog, I described my long experience in co-creating and running the Environmental Studies Program, which resembles many aspects of CAL use. I also previously discussed (June 18, 2019) the CAL program in the context of the mandated decarbonization of energy use in my school. One constant criticism that has been directed at the Environmental Studies Program and other interdisciplinary programs is that they would function better if students selected their primary discipline of study before faculty incorporated other interdisciplinary issues. This attitude is now shifting a bit due to new practices of collectively hiring faculty from different disciplines who will (hopefully) work together on interdisciplinary issues. Such hiring is now labeled “cluster hiring”:

Many universities now recognize interdisciplinary research and collaboration as the means to address grand challenges facing our society. University leaders also recognize the value of diversity in higher education and have expanded their definitions of diversity to incorporate multiple perspectives, methodologies, and worldviews. An inclusive campus climate that values diversity is one of the determinants of institutional excellence, and leaders seek strategies to further develop and improve the climate at their institutions.

Faculty cluster hiring is an emerging practice in higher education and involves hiring faculty into multiple departments or colleges around interdisciplinary research topics, or “clusters.” Some cluster hiring programs also aim to increase faculty diversity or address other aspects of institutional excellence, including faculty career success, collaboration across disciplines, the teaching and learning environment, and community engagement.

In a previous blog (January 19, 2022), I also described the NSF’s (National Science Foundation) new emphasis on funding interdisciplinary educational opportunities. As I mentioned in that blog, one of the conditions for getting new funding for such initiatives is that they must be new. Unfortunately, this means that none of us know how to structure them, and it would be presumptuous for us to suggest revolutionizing a college curriculum based on some scheme that none of us has experience with. In next week’s blog, I will outline my thinking on this issue and suggest how my school can start constructing a trial in this direction.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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