Sustainability Students Volunteer Problem-Solving Abilities
In the Fall semester of 2017, students of Columbia’s M.S. in Sustainability Management and M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy programs volunteered sustainability advisory services to three organizations in New York. These impact-driven projects were facilitated by a student group, SUMA Net Impact, the Net Impact chapter of the Sustainability Management program. The projects enabled students to gain hands-on experience with addressing sustainability challenges while pursuing a master’s degree. Projects included a clean energy proposal for Blue Point Brewing Company, a triple impact assessment for Sure We Can, and a waste assessment for Columbia University.
The Blue Point Brewing Company wanted to explore the feasibility of installing solar panels at their Long Island-based craft brewery’s facilities. Students analyzed available incentives, potential system designs, and financial structures, drawing on learnings from the Sustainability Management program’s course on Solar Project Development. Eventually they realized that they could add even more value to the client by evaluating how they could consume energy from renewable sources on a larger scale. This in turn influenced the company’s overall sustainability strategy.
The second project was conducted for Sure We Can, a Brooklyn-based recycling center and sustainability hub. The team’s goal was to determine the social, environmental, and economic metrics that the organization should collect, and the associated data collection and communication methods that would be necessary. They faced the commonly encountered challenge of a lack of adequate data, and as a result, helped the recycling center set up a data collection system. With the pilot system in place, they crafted a dashboard for the client to monitor the most relevant data and communicate it with key stakeholders such as grant providers, the organization’s board, and the community in which the organization is based. The students found data visualization skills highly useful for this project. The Data Analysis and Visualization in Sustainability course that is being offered for the first time this spring helps students develop these skills.
The third project was focused on assessing waste as a part of Columbia University’s Sustainability Plan, which was released in 2017. The student group collected data on waste streams and recycling practices on campus. Using their observations and an assessment of best practices followed by other universities, the team brought to light inefficiencies, such as the design and placement of recycling bins and a lack of clear signage. A key takeaway was the importance of thorough data collection to establish an accurate baseline on which sustainability initiatives can be built.
In December, the groups showcased their findings at the final project briefing that was attended by students, faculty, and professionals. The success of the three fall semester projects prompted continuity of the effort this spring, with student-led projects being conducted this semester for new clients.
Students are often keen to volunteer their time for extra-curricular activities that will create a positive social or environmental impact. These projects offer the opportunity to solve challenges that organizations are facing in real-time, while volunteering. As the projects are initiated during their master’s coursework, they can practice skills they learn in class with room for trial and error. This prepares them for their capstone (offered by the M.S. Sustainability Management program) and workshop (offered by the MPA Environmental Science and Policy program) courses, and then for careers as sustainability professionals.
Words by Greta Golz, Debasmita Sarkar and Avantika Goswami.
Student or clients interested in ongoing or future projects can contact the organizing group at firstname.lastname@example.org.