Higher Education at Forefront of Sustainability Movement Shaping a New Mindfulness for 21st Century Living and Business

A week after Hurricane Irma ripped through the Sunshine State, a group of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University engineering and Daytona State College interior design students scrambled to prepare a 1,000-square-foot house they built for shipment to Denver, CO., in time to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s prestigious Solar Decathlon 2017 held Oct. 5 – 15.

The scholars comprising Team Daytona Beach were among 11 collegiate squads from around the world vying for a share of over $2 million in DOE prize money. They spent almost two years designing and building their energy-efficient BEACH House, blending design excellence and smart energy balance with innovative engineering, market potential and affordability.

“The BEACH House (BEACH stands for Building Efficient, Affordable and Comfortable Homes) is designed to allow a small family to live sustainably without sacrificing comfort,” said DSC interior design professor Deborah Kincaid. “It features an open floor plan that provides the energy-saving ability of a high-technology house at an affordable price, and is engineered to perform in Central Florida’s hot and humid climate.”

Despite difficulties stemming from transporting the BEACH house to Colorado in the wake of nearly two weeks of construction delays courtesy of Irma, Team Daytona still managed to secure third-place honors in the contest’s Market Potential category. The Swiss team outshined the entire field. Just by participating in the DOE Solar Decathlon, however, Team Daytona Beach became part of national movement to create awareness of the value and imperativeness of sustainable living, and the epicenter of that movement is in the nation’s institutions of higher education. Nearly 1,000 American colleges and universities have pledged to “green” their operations and motivate students to seek sustainable solutions to environmental, societal and economic challenges, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. They are enhancing their courses, developing new academic programs, creating new graduation requirements and training faculty on how to integrate sustainability across the curriculum in order to prepare graduates to be thoughtful citizens of the planet.

Dr. Wendy Anderson, chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Studies at Stetson University, said sustainability awareness has been infused into the university’s culture for years. “We believe all students should be introduced to the concepts of sustainability early in their college careers and reside in a campus community that is committed to modeling sustainability so that they can live the experience as well as learn about it,” she noted. “Educating all students about sustainability should not be a goal of only a few select colleges and universities that have strong environmental traditions; rather, comprehensive sustainability education is an essential pursuit for any college or university that desires to be relevant in the 21st century.”

Like Stetson, other area colleges and universities are moving toward becoming living laboratories of sustainability practice. Operationally, each institution is committed to green building practices with regard to new construction (such as Daytona State’s 81,000-square-foot student center slated for completion in spring 2019) and investment in infrastructure improvements that are conserving energy and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. For example, a 2.5-million-gallon thermal energy storage tank Daytona State constructed on its main campus allows the college to take advantage of special low-demand (off-peak) rates offered by Florida Power & Light.

Likewise, Stetson University has implemented major campus-wide conservation programs that over the past two years have resulted in nearly $500,000 in electric, water, gas and other utility cost savings.

Academically, area institutions have launched courses and degree programs that focus on sustainability and conservation, and which are seeing steady increases in enrollment. Daytona State offers the two-year Associate of Science in Environmental Science as well as an associate of arts university transfer track. Bethune-Cookman University offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Integrated Environmental Science that prepare students for careers in resource management, environmental policy and field science. ERAU’s Master of Science in Aviation and Aerospace Sustainability is the only such program offered in the U.S., and focuses on the industries as business entities needing to remain viable as well as partners in finding sustainable solutions for conservation or renewability of the world’s resources.

At Bethune-Cookman, Dr. Michael Reiter chairs the Department of Integrated Environmental Science. In addition to fieldwork in places like the Indian River Lagoon and Blue Spring, BCU students examine sustainability from dual perspectives – considering the planet’s limited resources, as well as the economic consequences of how we design our social systems to deal with the inevitability of running out of those resources.

“There is one camp that says we should be designing these systems from the point of view that our expanding population and technology will place more demand on our raw materials,” Reiter said. “On the other hand, there is another perspective that says we should organize our social systems around maintaining the potential for innovation and new technology in order to solve the sustainability question. So, you have one side trying to hold back on technological development and population growth in order to reduce demand on resources, and the other trying to boost technology and innovation in order to make us more capable of manipulating the systems around us. Both of them are working toward the same goal.”

Regardless, each institution’s academic offerings are preparing students to be leaders in industry, government and education, where the number of clean-energy jobs are growing at more than double the rate of the overall job market, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nearly all area institutions have launched recycling programs and energy conservation campaigns. Stetson has a thriving community garden on campus, and other institutions are envisioning following suit – all in the name of fostering sustainability awareness among students.

Stetson, too, is taking its mission to the local business community. Its planned Sustainability in Business Seminar originally scheduled for September has been postponed until early next year due to circumstances arising from Hurricane Irma.

Dr. Anderson, one of the seminar organizers, noted that adopting sound sustainability practices can be good for the bottom line, no matter the industry. “From better insulation or improving lighting systems, enhancements to heating and cooling systems, to materials recovery and reuse, there are many ways costs can be cut, particularly in manufacturing,” she said. “Many businesses have demonstrated that implementing sustainability efforts not only minimizes environmental impact and increases good will among customers, but also increases profits through both operational savings and expansion of market share.”

But, just as with colleges and universities, the key to transforming to a sustainable business first happens with a change in corporate culture, according to Dr. Deborah Goldring, professor of marketing at Stetson, and that change makes perfect business sense. “In the short-term, a sustainable business can enhance their corporate reputation and brand awareness,” she said. “In the medium- to long-term, a commitment to excellence in sustainability may confer a competitive advantage as long as there is a consistent and responsible approach across all functional areas of the business.”