Atomic energy Potent mix of chemistry and art expands minds across the disciplines
A head for science New formula aims to give every Skidmore student an edge
Scientific edge Alumni in science careers share experience and advice
Environmental problem-solvers Student club combines science and advocacy
President's perspective Science matters
Environmental problem-solvers fan out across campus
by Dan Forbush
Science has confirmed that global warming is a genuine threat attributable at least in part to human activities. So the question now is: What can we do about it?
Plenty, say Skidmore students. They turned out in force this fall to squarely confront the great environmental challenge of our time. Leading the charge is the Environmental Action Club, which—with nearly 100 members—has become one of the most visible and influential of Skidmore’s student organizations. The EAC has teamed up with green-oriented student groups around the country to prod their colleges to become leaders in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Among the efforts at Skidmore:
• A two-week Battle of the Dorms in which eight residence halls vied to see which could recycle the highest per-student volume of glass, metal, and plastics. The residents of McClellan filled three and a half ninety-gallon bins, to earn a trophy created by art students from recyclable bottles and jugs.
• A campaign to discourage the use of disposable plastic bags by downtown stores and their customers. Such bags, says EAC treasurer Dawn Harfmann ’10, “take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and break down into small toxic pieces that contaminate soil and waterways.” She’s persuading downtown businesses to give discounts to their customers who use reusable canvas or synthetic bags.
• A drive to reduce paper consumption by promoting two-sided copying and discouraging the proliferation of posters and flyers to advertise campus events. Notices on Facebook or other online sites, and chalk messaging on campus sidewalks, work just fine, EAC says.
• Attendance by thirty students at Power Shift, the first youth summit on climate change and one of the largest green conferences ever in the US.
• Just before the elections last November, participation in National Step It Up Day, an event that brought to campus a number of local politicians to discuss their environmental platforms.
EAC has focused much of its momentum toward the end of January, when more than 1,000 American colleges, universities, and high schools—joining forces in an effort called Focus the Nation—will hold teach-ins to foster “a serious, sustained, and truly national discussion about global warming and clean energy solutions,” organizers say.
In addition to such activism and awareness-building, Skidmore students are delving into the science of pollution and climate change. For example, four students in Prof. Catherine Gibson’s “Urban Ecology” course took on the task of measuring Skidmore’s “carbon footprint,” a calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by the college’s facilities, people, and operations. It’s not easy. It counts the heating and cooling of campus buildings, of course, and the electricity (generated by carbon-emitting power plants) used for everything from lights to vending machines to computers and other equipment. In transportation alone, says Hannah Phillips ’10, it means estimating the gasoline consumption and tailpipe emissions involved in parents’ dropping off and picking up students at the beginning and end of the academic year; the daily commutes of faculty, staff, and students; food shipments to the dining hall; sports teams bussing to games off campus; and scores of other carbon-releasing activities.
Along with calculating Skidmore’s carbon footprint, the students are looking at how the college offsets its CO2 emissions—such as by incorporating geothermal heating and cooling into the design of new buildings and arranging free passes for students, faculty, and staff to ride the new municipal buses in and around Saratoga Springs. As Meghan Lena ’08 points out, even allowing most of the college’s North Woods to remain undeveloped helps “balance the carbon budget,” since trees take in CO2 and emit oxygen.
Environmental concerns are driving not only students’ course selections but also their overall career choices. “The more involved I become in the environmental movement and issues of climate change, the more my interest in science has a focus and the greater commitment I feel toward the field,” says Rob Campbell ’10, EAC co-president.
For Stephanie Wien ’10 it was a matter of conscience. She always figured she’d be an English major until she took a “fabulous” course in environmental issues in high school. The daughter of a physicist, she’d nevertheless found physics “very remote,” whereas environmental science struck her as “personal and relevant. The environment became a door to the sciences for me,” she says. On one level, “I saw that gaining a comprehensive understanding of the sciences would enable me to analyze and act upon environmental problems. This isn’t merely because I’ve read the data on water pollution or habitat degradation. Rather, I have an in-depth, tactile experience with the data and am in a position intellectually to develop informed opinions.” And more personally, she adds: “I’ll have a degree that will make me of use to the world. That’s my ultimate goal.”