Campus as a Living Lab

The Office of Sustainability is committed to facilitating opportunities for the campus to serve as a living lab, where students play an active role to research, present and/or drive forward solutions to address on-campus sustainability challenges. We collaborate with our partners in Facilities and Operations and the schools to mentor and support students in academic capstone courses, and show them new technologies that expand awareness of campus sustainability programs under way.

Past capstone projects and student collaborations include:

Spicing up John Jay Dining Hall: Reducing Scope 3 Emissions

Columbia Dining and the Office of Sustainability partnered with the Climate School’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development to offer a capstone project in the Fall 2023 semester as part of the program's senior Workshop in Sustainable Development course. The project explored ways of cutting Columbia's food-related emissions and led to Columbia’s participation in the New York City Plant-Powered Carbon Challenge. The capstone focused on measuring and reducing emissions from the procurement of food, in addition to studying the eating habits of meal plan holders to learn ways to influence the adoption of plant-based eating. 

In measuring emissions, the group found that ruminant meat (that of herbivorous grazing animals like cows) comprises 72% of Columbia Dining's total carbon cost, but only 13.4% of its purchase weight. This means that even a small amount of purchased ruminant meat causes a disproportionately high carbon footprint compared to plant-based foods. In fact, the team found that purchasing plant protein causes 38 times less emissions by weight than purchasing ruminant meat. 

At the students’ recommendation, Columbia Dining became the first signatory to the Plant-Powered Carbon Challenge, a NYC-wide initiative to reduce carbon emissions through plant-forward food. As part of the challenge, Dining has committed to reducing its food-based carbon emissions 25% by 2030 through a plant-powered procurement strategy for its operations. 

Efficiency Improvements for Columbia’s Intercampus Shuttle and Park-and-Ride Systems

In Spring 2023, the Office of Sustainability worked with students from the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. The students spent the semester learning about Columbia’s Intercampus Shuttle bus service and conducted research to improve shuttle efficiency, accessibility, and communications. The team conducted an analysis on current shuttle trends and used client data, surveys, and spot-checking at stops to identify locations where there could be reduced or soft stops on the Intercampus Shuttle. They also used their data to propose a Broadway/Crosstown line, redesigned maps for improved accessibility and readability, and looked into ways to best expand Columbia Transportation’s Lamont Park-and-Ride service.

Vehicle & Charging Recommendations Approaching 2025

For this Fall 2022 project, an undergraduate Sustainable Development Workshop studied electric vehicle and charging recommendations for Columbia's fleets as the University approaches its goal year of 2025. You can view the slides for their presentation here: Vehicle & Charging Recommendations Approaching 2025

Strategy for Tracking & Reducing Scope 3 Freight Emissions

In this Fall 2022 project, the Office of Sustainability tasked Master of Science candidates in the Sustainability Management program with recommending strategies for tracking, reporting, and reducing Scope 3 emissions related to freight transportation. The team conducted interviews with peer universities and corporations to understand how they approached tracking, reducing, and reporting their freight emissions. The team learned
that CU is among few leading universities addressing Scope 3 emissions from this perspective. Based on this research, the team recommended 15 strategies to track, report, and reduce GHG emissions from freight transportation activity for completion by 2030. You can read their presentation here: Strategy for Tracking & Reducing Scope 3 Freight Emissions 

Proposing Offsets and Standards for Columbia’s Transportation Emissions

This Spring 2020 project was led by faculty advisor Radley Horton. Objectives for the project included proposing a shortlist of carbon offsets for the University to formally endorse through researching the variety of available carbon offsets on the market and proposing a range of offset opportunities the University can act on, such as partnering with an organization that sequesters carbon or investing in campus sustainability projects that can be considered offsets (eg. investing in commuter alternatives, video conferencing services that will enable affiliates to avoid travel, or other creative research and ideas). The group created “offset standards” that Columbia can adopt to distinguish high quality carbon offsets from lesser quality offsets and analyzed University travel data to estimate the annual cost of offsetting University travel. The group also researched and advised how University travel could be taxed to raise money to offset travel emissions, including researching and proposing carbon tax rates.

Advancing Sustainability at Faculty House

This Fall 2019 Sustainability Management capstone project led by faculty advisor Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri examined sustainability practices at Faculty House, diving deeper into two main components: energy efficiency and sustainable operations. The energy efficiency portion of their report includes a full-building lighting audit as well as a building occupancy survey to gain insights into how the building currently meets the needs of its employees. The sustainable operations portion focuses on quantifying environmental impacts of food – including an analysis of the Sustainable Living menu created in collaboration with the Earth Institute – and linen procurement. Read the full report.

Water Exploratory to Inform Sustainability Planning

A Fall 2019 undergraduate Sustainable Development student group led by faculty advisor Radley Horton looked at water conservation practices at other American universities compared to Columbia’s efforts to reduce water waste, highlighted in part by the School of the Arts’ Year of Water initiative. The students also conducted an audit of two Columbia buildings to assess their current water use. Their final report includes a comprehensive report on plastic water bottle use – including a literature review on drinking water habits across America and in other universities – and data on Columbia students’ drinking water preferences. The students made recommendations for plastic bottle alternatives as well as potential marketing initiatives to promote reusable bottle use.

Campaign to Reduce Columbia-related Travel

The goal of this Spring 2018 project was to develop a behavior change campaign that Columbia can institute that will ensure the Columbia community is thinking seriously about their decision and need to fly. The campaign’s goals were to influence the Columbia community such that they are informed about the alternatives to flying such as using video conferencing tools and other communication resources. Members of the community needed to be made aware of the University’s sustainability goals as well as be informed on the environmental harm of flying. 

The project team performed literature reviews based on research provided, as well as team-selected efforts by peer universities and other organizations, to understand best practice techniques to achieve the project goal stated above. To help steer the campaign, the group interviewed key Columbia individuals and other thought leaders to understand the pros and cons of using alternative to flying communications. Then, they developed communication materials such as images, graphs, and text that informed Columbia’s “Alternatives to Flying” webpage.

The group identified key departments and groups of Columbia members who are frequent flyers, and develop possible alternatives and actions that can be taken to reduce their need for travel or means of travel (e.g. emissions-intensive first class vs. coach). They proposed incentives for members who choose alternatives over flying, and developed university policies that can be considered for implementation in the next sustainability plan.

Quantifying GHG Emissions from Air Travel

A significant amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are generated from air travel associated with Columbia related research, study, and the sharing of information across the globe. Before this project in Spring 2017, Columbia did not centrally track its GHG emissions associated from air travel by its affiliates. This project sought an assortment of possible solutions and protocols based on the best practices implemented by other universities, companies, or industry organizations that Columbia could look to emulate. The goal was to move to a place where we can centrally track, calculate, reduce, and offset GHG emissions associated with Columbia related air travel. This project informed others in subsequent semesters that built on information gathered here to work towards reducing air travel by Columbia affiliates.

Commute and Fleet Emissions Data Analysis

This group in Fall 2017 created a method that could be used with the bi-annual Transportation survey data to calculate GHG emissions from commuter travel at Columbia. Fleet Emissions Analysis was conducted for Columbia Transportation fleets and a Fleet Policy Proposal was created to lower the GHG emissions from Columbia vehicles.

Intercampus Shuttle Opportunities for Efficiency and Service Improvements

In Fall 2016, this group made proposals that resulted in a more fuel-efficient and cost-effective Intercampus Shuttle system that appropriately balanced rider demand and service with vehicle capacity. The group proposed alternative solutions that still achieved an appropriate level of customer service for the majority of users, and met the above mission statement. The group also looked into the Harlem-125th St. commuter connection as a way for Columbia to reduce the number of affiliates choosing a car commute. Many of Columbia’s driving commuters reside in Westchester County and were not incentivized to use the Metro-North Rail Road, as making the cross town trip from Harlem-125th is difficult and costly.

Break the Ice

This project assists in regular defrosting and maintenance of Ultra Low Temperature (ULT) freezers by providing knowledge, equipment, labor and temporary safe storage of samples during defrosting. The team quantifies the impact of the program by measuring electricity consumption of every freezer before and after defrosting. The keystone purchase of this entire project is a ULT freezer that will be made available to researchers on a rotating weekly schedule for storage of samples while they defrost and maintain their own freezer.  

Status: The group is currently conducting a freezer survey in select labs on the Morningside campus to create a preventative maintenance program to maximize freezer performance. 

Read more about Break the Ice.

SIPA Zero Waste & Sustain-a-Bottle

SIPA Zero Waste encourages students to recycle properly by performing waste audits and marketing campaigns. They also capture data to support the possible startup of a composting pilot in an academic building. Utilizing composting bins to dispose of their food waste, which will reduce the overall waste that is sent to landfills, and help convert a portion of this waste into useful product that can be utilized in organic farms, parks and gardens. The team will also perform waste audits and check vending machine sales to see the rebound effect that composting/recycling properly has on other services. 

Status: The team will be meeting with Columbia Facilities Operations to coordinate waste audits to capture data to support the need for recycling education and organics collection in the building. 

Sustain-a-Bottle, a project managed by the same team as SIPA Zero Waste, aims to purchase and install Bottle Filling Stations in the International Affairs (SIPA) Building. The Bottle Filling Stations, which have already been installed in other areas of the Columbia campus such as the Dodge Gym, The Law School, The School of Engineering, Undergraduate Housing and Lerner Hall, will provide convenient hydration while minimizing plastic bottle waste in the environment. The units feature sanitary, no-touch sensor activation with automatic 20-second shut-off timer and a digital visual interface that displays the quantity of bottles saved from landfills. The Bottle Filling Stations project will be accompanied by an educational campaign and corresponding signage to promote the use of refillable bottles. The stations will remain as permanent facility upgrades to SIPA in common use locations. The team will also perform waste audits and check vending machine sales to see the rebound effect that composting/recycling properly has on other services.

Status: The team is planning to work in the near future with SIPA administrators to collect data on totals of bottled beverages dispensed in vending machines in support of bottles eliminated from landfill by utilizing bottle filling stations. 

Read more about SIPA Zero Waste & Sustain-a-Bottle.

Cup It

The Cup It team seeks to analyze and improve upon current recycling behaviors on Columbia’s campus.  This group will use regular waste audits and a focused education campaign to gather metrics which will then be used to inform students about how to properly dispose of their trash. The Cup It team has recruited volunteers from SIPA’s graduate programs, as well as undergraduate EcoRep members to help them conduct these waste audits around campus.  Thus far, the team has audited in International Affairs, some undergraduate residence halls and other outdoor highly visible spaces on campus. The team will continue to conduct their waste audits on a bi-weekly basis to track behavior and frame their educational approach.

Read more about Cup It. 

A group of MPA students in Environmental Science and Policy program are doing trash audits in two continuing semesters to see the accuracy of people's recycling behaviors and what factors influence them.

Pedal 2 Power

The Pedal 2 Power group looks to harness energy generated by people! The group will capture the energy used to ride a stationary bike via a connected battery that will be stationed in undergraduate residence halls.  This project will increase awareness about how much human energy it takes to charge a battery, and also brings to light how this energy, often wasted, is a perfectly viable and renewable source of power.  By learning how many hours of pedaling it might take to complete a simple task such as charging a cell phone, individuals might learn to think twice about their energy usage habits and the availability of alternative power sources.

Read more about Pedal 2 Power.

Columbia Watermark Initiative

The Columbia Water Mark Initiative focuses on University water savings by analyzing water use in Furnald Residence Hall. The team has partnered with the Aquanauts to conduct an audit of water fixtures and flow rates in the building to insure the fixtures are water efficient and low flow.  They also partnered with facilities to install a flow-meter to be able to measure flow moving forward.  The team will use the information gathered from this audit as a “before” snapshot, which will inform an education campaign around water conservation.  The flow-meter will then enable the group to collect an “after” snapshot, and measure relative success after the campaign is launched.

Read more about Columbia Watermark Initiative.