When students learn real-world skills they can put to work at a "green economy" job, and campuses meet sustainability goals, everyone wins. That's exactly what's happening at 22 California State University campuses. Each school is part of the CSU's "Campus as a Living Lab" (CALL) grant program.

Starting in 2013, the CSU began awarding project grants to select campus faculty and facility teams with the goal of doing a better job of integrating sustainability into academic curricula while also aligning with the university's systemwide sustainability goals. Funded projects include a wide range of learning communities, capstone classes, course redesigns, and physical campus sustainability initiatives.

In honor of Earth Month, here are a few highlights of the work being done on campuses that have received a CALL grant:

Campus Urban Farm: Growing Food, Feeding Minds

California State University, Dominguez Hills was awarded a 2017-18 CALL grant to develop its Campus Urban Farm, an outdoor classroom, lab and garden situated in the campus' southeast corner.

Student interns and volunteers are currently preparing 30 planting beds that will grow organic fruits and vegetables. They will be used by faculty teaching courses, student groups and off-campus entities, says Ellie Perry, sustainability coordinator at CSU Dominguez Hills.

While much of the edible produce grown will be given to food-insecure students on campus, the larger mission of the farm is to support the study of urban agriculture and sustainability.

What Makes a Job 'Green'?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as businesses that provide goods or services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources or jobs in which the employee is tasked with making a business more environmentally-friendly or ensure it uses fewer natural resources.

Students and faculty researchers will be able to use the beds for a wide range of study, from horticulture to sociology. Perry explains that Chicano studies classes, for example, could use the farm to learn about and experience culturally significant crops. Nursing professors are exploring ways to use gardening as a healing therapy for patients.

Classes have already begun using the farm since its opening in February 2018. Jenney Hall, Ph.D., professor of interdisciplinary and environmental studies at CSUDH, is currently teaching an upper-division course, "Global Food Production," in which students work at the farm on Saturdays.

"Students are learning about … the importance of global soil health, biodiversity in ecosystems, and bees," says Dr. Hall, who will soon be teaching a new "Global Climate Change" course, in which she'll address "the link between greenhouse gasses and regenerative agriculture to mitigate climate change."

"I think the farm is doing an excellent job of serving as a living laboratory to ensure students have the opportunities to gain real-world skills in their fields of interest," Perry says.

The farm project was initiated by CSUDH student Hawk McFadzen, a senior sociology major and Presidential Scholarship recipient who is passionate about food justice and access.

Visit the farm's Instagram page to learn more.


Creating More Sustainable Buildings

Sometimes campus buildings themselves become an ideal laboratory for learning about sustainability.

Kevin Fingerman, Ph.D., assistant professor of energy and climate in Environmental Science and Management at Humboldt State University, saw untapped potential in the structures around him.

He also wanted to pave the way for his students' careers in a growing industry: energy-efficient building performance and auditing. Dr. Fingerman and his HSU colleagues were awarded a 2014-15 CALL grant to redesign an upper-division course in energy, technology and society and purchase equipment to teach the class. 

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To measure the energy efficiency of a building, students use thermal imaging cameras to identify areas of low insulation and sources of drafts. Photo courtesy of Humboldt State

"One of the key reasons I sought to develop the curriculum is that I saw a lot of my graduates going to work in that field and wanted to better prepare them for those careers," Fingerman says.

Beyond ensuring students get good jobs and thrive in them, Fingerman's course also enables real-world data collection and analysis that's valuable to campus HSU facility managers in their sustainability efforts.

In Fingerman's class, students take measurements of how a building performs and use computer modeling to evaluate how effective different interventions would be, such as adding insulation, closing up drafts, or swapping out gas heating for electric, explains Fingerman. In addition to energy performance, students also conduct an economic analysis to find the most cost-effective option for a building.

​​One of Fingerman's students graduated from his department's program and went on to work as an energy analyst at a local zero-net energy building consultancy. She recently visited his class. "She had just returned from a green building fair in Santa Rosa where she was promoting energy-efficient construction techniques for her firm," he says.

Green industry career paths can go in many directions — from building energy auditing to efficiency retrofitting (bringing older buildings in line with greener technologies and materials), he says. And the industries students can work in run the gamut — from governmental regulatory agencies and utility companies to private sector energy and non-profit policy advocacy.

And there are plenty of new jobs still to be developed, making Fingerman very optimistic about the green industry as a whole. "Renewable energy and the energy efficiency space have grown exponentially in the last five years, but it is still dwarfed by the conventional energy industry. The way I see it, there's a lot of growth still to occur."

"I'm releasing students into a rapidly growing field and I'm excited about their job prospects," he adds. "If I were training coal mine technicians, I'd be worried about their job prospects."

Humboldt State also received a 2017-18 CALL grant for its project, Climate Change Resilience & Sustainable Lifestyles, which kicks off in May 2018.


Where Water Flows, Learning Grows

Before urbanization, Southern California was an expanse of rivers and wetlands with ecologically diverse habitats. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona is situated on some of these still-untouched lands, home to a collection of natural springs. Highlighting these natural water resources for education and enjoyment is the goal of Project Blue, a 2017-18 CALL grant recipient.

"[Water is] all around us and it's vitally important in Southern California," says Ed Bobich, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Cal Poly Pomona. Dr. Bobich, along with his Department of Biological Sciences colleague Kristine Hartney, Ph.D., and Cal Poly's BioTrek Project Curator Mike Brown, created the vision for Project Blue.

The project — which begins construction in mid-May and is expected to be complete by mid-August —   begins with the restoration of a flood control channel behind one of the administration buildings on campus, Bobich says. The channel is fed by a collection of natural springs emanating from the San Jose Hills. The restoration work includes the removal of concrete and invasive plants and lining the stream with native rock and improving water flow. ​

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Fed by nearby natural springs, this small channel behind Building 1 at Cal Poly will be restored to a natural stream where students can learn about the importance of riparian-zone ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona 

After the channel is restored, campus coordinators will begin construction on an outdoor riparian (meaning the ecosystem where water meets the land) learning space, which will include native plant landscaping, a circular seating area sourced from local boulders and walkways that meander along the stream.

​​Students in hydrology, environmental sustainability and biology, among other STEM disciplines, will use the new space, says Monika Kamboures, sustainability coordinator at Cal Poly Pomona. "[They] can visit the natural springs and take water samples to learn about the biodiversity and aquatic habitats in Southern California," she says.

Learning hands-on about the importance of natural water resources may prepare students to work in native landscape planning or stream restoration, Bobich says. 

"I can't imagine anything more important than preserving what we have left here … in terms of our natural waterways," he says, adding that two of his students have gone on to jobs in California conservancies, where they work to identify sites for preservation and raise awareness about threatened areas in the community.

In addition to its educational goals, Project Blue's features will also be good for the well-being of those on campus and help them get in touch with nature, even if just for few minutes, says Bobich. "Hearing water run and seeing animals use it and seeing plants grow around it is something that is vital to humans."


For more information on the Campus as a Living Lab Grant Program, contact sustainability@calstate.edu. There you can also learn more about the 2017-18 CALL grant awards and the 68 CALL projects across CSU campuses.

Read more about how the CSU is tracking against its green goals in "Sustainability in the California State University: The First Assessment of the 2014 Sustainability Policy" (PDF).