Student Sustainability Task Force proposes Office of Sustainability
As a part of the Earth Week events, the Student Sustainability Task Force held a sustainability conference in the McNeil Room on April 22 to bring awareness to the need for an Office of Sustainability at Rensselaer. SSTF is a student-led organization devoted to promoting sustainability throughout campus by collaborating with various clubs, faculty, staff, and administration.
The conference began with a welcome presentation by Julia Kelly ’24 and was divided into three main segments: the panelist round, the poster walk, and the Office of Sustainability presentation. During the welcome presentation, Kelly introduced the SSTF and the panelists, who represented different organizations on campus. The panelists were Kriti Sharma ’25 representing RPI Sunrise, Mackenzie Hay ’25 representing the Vasudha Living and Learning Community, Marvin Ko ’25 representing the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, Drake Bradshaw ’23 representing the Facilities and Services Composting Committee, Geena Geraci ’24 representing Engineers for a Sustainable World, and Talulah Patch ’24 representing the Student Senate. Kelly also pointed out her four goals for this conference: to bring together various student clubs, individuals, and faculty who are interested in promoting sustainability on campus; to share successes and challenges faced by students in promoting sustainability on campus; to highlight areas of collaboration, specifically in sharing resources and expertise; and to present creating the Office of Sustainability as a common goal.
After the welcome presentation, the panelists were asked a series of questions about their organizations and respective sustainability efforts on campus. Sharma discussed how Sunrise had issues becoming a Union-recognized club because of its political leanings. Patch also mentioned a letter being written to the incoming RPI president, Martin A. Schmidt ’81, which included information about the need for an Office of Sustainability.
For the poster walk, tables around the McNeil room held large pieces of cardstock with a single question on each. The topics of the questions ranged from “What do you want to see from an Office of Sustainability?” to “What is your major?” Conference attendees were encouraged to go to different posters, write down their answers to the questions, and discuss the questions with those around them. After everyone had walked around and filled out the pieces of cardstock, Kelly brought attention to a project designed by Ria Massoni ’24, a dynamic database of sustainability clubs and projects. Afterward, those in attendance were divided into two groups to discuss alternate questions and share their opinions with the rest of the people in attendance.
Finally, Kelly gave a presentation defining the SSTF’s vision for the Office of Sustainability: an office run by a sustainability director, who represents environmental and sustainability interests to RPI’s administration. She then listed possible responsibilities of the Office of Sustainability which included serving as a hub for sustainable student activities, publicizing sustainability initiatives at RPI, introducing Arch away opportunities focused on sustainability, and ensuring continuity of sustainability projects at RPI.
Kelly said that an Office of Sustainability would “bring administration, students, faculty, and the wider Troy community together as a consolidation point for projects and opportunities involving sustainability-related work.” She then mentioned a list of universities that have offices of sustainability, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Case Western Reserve University, and Rochester Institute of Technology. “We try to hold ourselves to these standards,” Kelly argued, “it is kind of embarrassing that we are not on this list.”
She then went on to talk about a brief history of sustainability at RPI and highlighted a thesis by Nancy Bush, who served as the Facilities and Services Chairperson from April 2017 to April 2019. The focus of Bush’s thesis was a Student Sustainability Archive with student projects dating back to 1992. The sample data that was displayed from the archive showed that there was a repetition of projects such as composting and food waste. Kelly said that there are projects that the Rensselaer community is still trying to get done in 2022 though some of these initial projects were from 1996. Kelly added that an Office of Sustainability would enable the continuity of such projects.
Other projects that were highlighted during the conference were the Rensselaer Energy Awareness Program and the Sustainability Charette of 2009. Rensselaer Energy Awareness Program was headed by Dr. Oliver Holmes, former Associate Director of Facilities Planning and Design at RPI, and was based on the principle that departments that achieved energy conservation objectives would receive a rebate: some of the money that was saved would be given back to the department. The Rensselaer Energy Awareness Program was estimated to have reduced annual electric use by over six million kWh per year and water consumption by over 120 million gallons per year during the years that it was in place. The Sustainability Charette in 2009 was hosted by the SSTF and was 26 hours of working on sustainability efforts at RPI with students and administrative staff. Some of the solutions put forth included composting, creating an Office of Sustainability, and calculating building energy use and green purchasing.
As far as the history of sustainability at RPI goes, a petition for an “RPI Climate Action Plan” with 301 signatures was created in September 2019. The Student Senate passed a motion on September 23, 2019 resolving to “recognize the necessity of a Director of Sustainability or an equivalent permanent staff member tasked in strengthening the long-term evaluation, development, and implementation of environmental sustainability initiatives at Rensselaer thereby assisting in the efforts of the Student Sustainability Task Force.”
To end the presentation, Kelly outlined some of the actions that the SSTF has taken toward the creation of an Office of Sustainability, such as writing a proposal to the Student Senate, and emphasized that now is the best time to act. This is partly due to a new incoming president Martin A. Schmidt who hails from MIT, a university that has an Office of Sustainability. She also gave some pointers on how to get involved with the Office of Sustainability project such as actively participating in the Office of Sustainability project and speaking out in support of the project to the administration.
Evelyn Pae ’22, the current president of the SSTF, highlighted the members of the SSTF and their various contributions. Kelly ended the conference by thanking individuals involved in the planning of the conference and those who had stayed till the end.
The SSTF meets every Monday on Discord.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Evelyn Pae ’22, president of the SSTF, was the one to end the conference. The Polytechnic regrets these errors.