​Every university has its labs full of Bunsen burners, beakers and high-powered microscopes. But a number of CSU campuses are now defining "laboratory" a lot more broadly in an effort to make the country's largest four-year public university system both cleaner and greener.

Campus as a Living Lab (CALL) is a grant program with the goal of engaging students in environmental research that will translate into greater efficiency and more sustainable practices right on campus.

CALL brings together students, faculty and, crucially, the campus's maintenance and facilities staff to explore problems, research solutions and work in conjunction with one another to institute new policies.

For example, one project at Sacramento State produced vegetables in an organic aquaponics system that were then used in campus food services. Another used worm composting to break down waste and provide food for fish in the aquaponics tanks.

The California Higher Education Sustainability Conference (CHESC) recently recognized Sacramento State with awards for Innovative Waste Reduction and Sustainable Food Systems for its CALL projects using aquaponics.

More projects -- like a solar-powered golf cart for facilities staff -- are in the works, says sustainability manager Ryan Todd. "We will be utilizing processes that were refined during the first CALL grant cycle and expanding those processes to a campus-wide level, with an ultimate goal of 100 percent organic waste recycling."

Before CALL, facilities staff at Sacramento State had little interaction with students and faculty. After two successful projects received funding, though, all are working together to make the campus more sustainable.


How It Works

A similar scenario is unfolding at CSU Fullerton, where CALL participants at first struggled to translate what they were learning in classrooms into real-world results. Now, both the academic and campus facilities sides work together to identify problems and understand how to collaborate on solutions.

CALL has been used at CSUF to assess the feasibility of capturing greywater from restroom sinks, analyze campus police vehicle emissions, and re-examine discarded trash. Recent success stories at Fullerton include:

  • A project that studied the best ways to remove gum from concrete, examining the benefits of using a propane-powered machine versus scraper and solvent.
  • Another project focused on how to improve overall sustainability in waste removal; one year after the study, Fullerton had achieved a 58 percent diversion from landfills. The campus aims to reach 80 percent by 2020.
  • Fullerton students Maelynn Dickson and Kristy Morehead recently won the top prize at the 2016 Conference of the California Geographical Society for their poster explaining the success of CALL projects.

"In the best cases, [CALL research is] implemented on campus, resulting in operational efficiencies, savings, occupant comfort, and student and alumni ownership for the campus," says Megan Moscol, sustainability program manager at CSU Fullerton.

East Bay has seen recent success, too. In one CALL project, students researched water use in the residence halls. All showerheads were subsequently changed to low-flow units and faucets were fitted with aerators for improved efficiency.

"CALL is a great tool to provide real-world experience for students while providing facilities with data they may not have the capacity to gather on their own," says Jillian Buckholz, Director of Sustainability at CSU East Bay.


Real-World Results

CALL projects are designed to expose students to everyday sustainability and environmental issues so that as graduates they can create change beyond campus. Just a few years after CALL began in 2013, its success has been encouraging. To date, there have been 57 CALL projects on 22 of the CSU's 23 campuses.

As the CALL program continues to grow, campuses are looking ahead to more problems they'd like to solve. East Bay is working on a plan to compost all pre-consumer food waste on campus, for example. According to Buckholz, the idea stemmed from a compost pile pilot study.

"It's pretty exciting," she says. "I don't think it would have been possible without the CALL grant."​