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February 5, 2015

Sustainability: Starting with freshmen

Provost Patricia E. Beeson’s declaration that 2014-15 would be the Year of Sustainability at Pitt has prompted a flurry of academic activity.

But not all of Pitt’s academic environmental efforts are new. Geology and planetary sciences faculty member Ward Allebach has been teaching Management of Nonprofit Environmental Organizations and Sustainability in the environmental studies program for seven years. When his upperclass students said they wished they had had some of that course knowledge earlier, Allebach, together with teams of his upperclass students, began teaching freshman seminars on how to make better environmental decisions and how to get involved on campus with green causes. They did so as part of the academic orientation program for arts and sciences freshmen. According to Laura Dice, director of the Office of Freshman Programs at the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, these introductory courses and seminars draw 65 percent of arts and sciences freshmen, or about 1,700 students last fall.

In teaching freshmen about sustainability, Allebach has discovered that the word “sustainability” is a little confusing. “I find that people don’t know what it means. I call it ‘living green.’ But it really should be simplified even more to ‘how to live’ — making decisions that make sense.”

Freshman decisions about living sustainably “can be overwhelming,” Allebach allows. “There are so many decisions we make on a daily basis that we don’t really think about”: what to recycle; what to carry water in, or what to leave plugged in after it is charged. “Food choices. Drink choices. Turning the lights off when you leave the room. Are you going to take the stairs or the elevator?

“We don’t expect every single freshman … will change their life or their habits,” he concludes. “If one or two or three students get one or two or three ideas they can incorporate into their lives, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

—Marty Levine