In mid-October, over 1,700 students, faculty and staff from institutions of higher education across the United States and 20 countries around the world gathered in Los Angeles for the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
This was my second trip to AASHE. Last year's conference inspired me to take a campus planning class and change my master of science in architecture: sustainable design thesis topic to focus on campus planning for sustainability. This year I presented my thesis in progress, Envisioning the Resilient Campus: Planning for Reduced Campus Energy Consumption through Data Analysis and Visualization. It was an incredible opportunity to get feedback from campus planners, engineering consultants, and students who are grappling with similar issues as we try to achieve carbon-neutral campuses. It's not often I meet people as excited as I am about campus energy data, like the developers of Lucid, Sightlines, and the University of Minnesota's own Building Energy Dashboard. These emerging interfaces will enable us to better understand how our campuses use energy.
While developing sustainable campus infrastructure has always been a focus of AASHE, this year also emphasized campus diversity and equity, as well a greater representation from the arts and video. I enjoyed, for example, a dance piece about the human relationship to water.
Many discussions revolved around the tension between embracing new technology and trends towards online, less-expensive learning, such as the video-based sustainability micro-course Madrone Project proposed by keynote speaker Hunter Lovins, and the feeling that a critical component of college learning is developing relationships with fellow students through late-night conversations and meals in the cafeteria.
Similarly, attendees debated the incongruity of flying across the country on carbon-spewing planes to discuss how campuses can reduce their carbon footprint. Despite the immediate environmental impact, I believe that in-person teaching, AASHE and conferences like it are critical for reducing our long-term impact as they connect us to the human and social side of sustainability. If we hope to advance sustainability in higher education, we must look beyond carbon emissions numbers and connect to movements of fellow human beings committed to envisioning a prosperous future for life on this planet.
Elizabeth Turner is completing her master of science in architecture: sustainable design at the University of Minnesota. She is working at LHB, an architecture and engineering firm with a focus on sustainable design, where she is able to assist with campus planning and higher education projects. Photo of AASHE exhibit hall courtesy of Christy Newell