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CSC Explains Two-Fold Mission, Clarifies Campus Focus Areas

This is the second of a series of weekly interviews with members of different Undergraduate Association committees. These interviews will be conducted by The Tech’s news editors and members of the editorial board. A UA representative will be present during these interviews as well. Questions for the UA committee members should be sent to the same week they are featured. Responses to these questions will be printed alongside the following week’s interview.

This week’s committee is the newly-formed Campus Sustainability Committee. The Tech talked to CSC Chair Anna S. Jaffe ’08.

The Tech: What is the mission of the Campus Sustainability Committee?

Anna Jaffe: The mission is two-fold. First is to leverage MIT’s stance as a global leader in technology to set the stage for what should be standard in the way of community consumables, research consumables, building design, how we educate people in a global world for a sustainable future, basically.

And then the second piece is, because we are a UA committee, of course we’re interested in collecting student insight on the topic, and ideally trying to leverage student research. To that end, we’ve looked at a bunch of different case studies where the constituencies of whatever it is — a company or a school or anything — have drastically changed the direction of that particular institution, or at least improved it in a radical sort of manner. Our primary goal is to engage every student on campus, and ideally also faculty and staff, and have MIT lead in six or seven primary categories.

TT: What projects are the committee currently involved in?

AJ: We have six focus areas. The first is new buildings, like the new grad dorm that’s going up, potentially the energy research center that the [Energy Council] is looking to establish, and then also a radical, experimental building that is just crazy if you could have any green building on campus, what would it look like, what would it do, how would it work? The goal for that particular subset of the committee is by the end of the year to have three completed CAD models, so that we can go the administration, we can go to students, and say, hey, this is what a potential grad dorm could look like, this is what a potential research center could look like, and this is some crazy wacky idea that we had that we thought was really cool.

The second committee subsection is looking at building retrofit. That’s something that has been a topic for a while; it isn’t necessarily forging new ground or anything. But they’re looking at each building and working with a couple other groups on campus to do building audits, and once those audits are done trying to pick the highest leverage point to ideally minimize material energy use in current existing infrastructure. At the moment, Ashdown, and potentially even the Infinite Corridor are two focus areas just because one is a building that is about to be undergoing renovation anyway and the other is a location where many students walk and is critical to change. And so that is sort of an immediate path.

Then the third committee subsection, project area, is community consumables. We’re a little village of over 10,000 people — or more depending on how far out you go. That allows us to look at all of the standard questions that any community would have to look at, whether it is transportation, food, water, what you do with your stuff, or where you get your clothing. That group is looking at all of the vendors that are at MIT and what they sell, all of the actions students take to turnover any of their equipment whether it is their computer or their … you know, soda can. Then within that also trying to understand what galvanizes people to understand the material processes that go into everything they use on a daily basis.

Group four is looking at research consumables. We’re doing awesome, groundbreaking research, but a lot of it isn’t particularly clean. And so that presents a lot of opportunity to develop green chemistry and other similar practices. I think one of the P3 … Awards [a national student design competition focusing on people, prosperity, and the planet] that the EPA [US Environmental Protectioni Agency] put out — two or three years ago, I think — was won by an MIT group doing green chemistry. So it’s something that’s been on campus for a little awhile. By looking at all of the materials and energy and ways people are used to doing research and see whether or not that can’t be leveraged to some advantage, either in the form of new practices that can then spread to other schools or just on campus.

The fifth group is finance. We have a very large endowment at MIT and a couple individuals on the committee are looking at how that endowment potentially could be invested, such that we’re investing in either clean development or energy or whatever it might be. That’s something I’m a little bit less familiar with, but I think it’s exciting. I just don’t know all that much about how investment portfolios are managed. I also feel like that’s a little bit different, a little bit removed from most of campus, just because we don’t usually think about, you know, who we are investing in as a school.

The sixth committee project revolves around student-led initiatives. Because we’re a student committee, we’re excited, obviously, to engage students. So that project is the establishment of a half-million dollar grant that would then be broken down into 20 $25,000 units. It would solicit projects that have a rate of return that would enable that endowment to be maintained. It would have to be sponsored, basically, for two years, and after two years, the rate of return should be high enough to insure it into perpetuity. Our goal with that is if 20 radical groundbreaking student projects were established every single year, it would kind of take the IDEAS competition but then apply it to MIT, and it would also enable us to tackle a bunch of these industry problems because we do manufacturing on campus, basically — you know, we do education, we have buildings, we have spaces, we have transportation. And it allows us to do something that as a committee we personally couldn’t do — because there are 16 of us or something — but as a huge population of students or faculty with students nested among them we can do really effectively.

TT: I know this is a new committee. Do you know why the UA felt it was necessary to start the committee? Why now?

AJ: My understanding was that it came out of Hockfield’s Energy Initiative. So it’s like, okay, we’ve got globalization, we’ve got Hockfield telling us that as a student body we’re supposed to solve the energy crisis, and there are 15, or 16, or 17 — more than you can count — of these little groups on campus trying to solve little questions, whether it’s recycling or building energy use. And I feel like the UA created this group bring all those people together and allow them to have dialogue within a framework that is structured, rather than there just being this sort of disparate group that is a little bit amorphous and maybe sometimes has trouble voicing themselves to either the administration or students. So just giving more shape to something that was already there.

TT: Have you been working with some of these other groups on campus?

AJ: The interesting thing about this committee is that, even though it’s an undergrad committee, we’re really interested in working with grad students, because the tenure for an undergrad is four years, and the tenure for a PhD student — it could go on forever. They have a slightly longer time scale in mind when they think, okay, how are we going to try to change this place or what kind of programs are we going to set up. And, because they’re doing research … they’re really interested in leading research projects, and since that’s a focus of our group, we’ve been interfacing a lot with both undergrads and grads.

So there’s S* [Sustainability@MIT Student Working Group], which is basically the graduate equivalent of the UA Sustainability Committee; SAVE [Share A Vital Earth] which is primarily, or historically has worked on recycling; SfGS, which is Students for Global Sustainability, which is a consortium of eight universities — I think their primary activity is a conference once a year between all the schools; the Sloan Energy and Environmental [Finance] Club; the Energy Club; and a bunch of others that are smaller and a little bit less established.

TT: How do you expect your work to affect students?

AJ: We’ve been talking a lot about how curriculum could be used to inspire students and potentially even faculty to gear their research toward questions of sustainability, whether it’s energy or buildings or how to use people. … MIT, in the best of cases, is basically educating us to design sustainably. High-level engineering is actually very detail-oriented. You minimize materials naturally, because that’s sort of like the most elegant design possible. What we’re trying to do with the committee is to understand how we can impact every student to take any of their classwork, whether it’s in a sustainability framework or not, and apply it to some of these global, engineering, or social challenges.

… So our goal basically is to encourage every student at MIT to think with a perspective that says, hmm, you know, how is this going to not only provide a service or a product, but actually make the world a significantly better place. …

TT: You spoke a little bit about the Energy Initiative. Can you elaborate on how the committee’s work will tie into this campus-wide initiative?

AJ: … If you look at how innovation happens in a corporate structure, you have big companies that move kinda slowly, and you have little companies that move really quickly. MIT is a very large institution, and our goal within the Energy Initiative is to say students can move very fast. And not only can they, but they have to, because they’re only here for four years. Whereas professors or people in the administration are here for a long time — and that’s great because they can do things incrementally, they can have a longer perspective on how change is going to happen — but students, if they want to have an impact on this place, have to act really, really, really quickly. So we’re trying to leverage both the if you’re small and you’re free to do whatever you want, well you can, you can do really radically different, innovative things. Whereas if you’re established, you’re probably going to do something that you have done before. So, if we were going to contribute anything to the Energy Initiative, we want to push it to be even more radically-oriented than might otherwise occur.

TT: You talked about the six different focus areas. How far has the committee gotten in each of these areas?

AJ: For CAD, I’ve contacted the Boston Green Building Council, which we think is going to be our best source for architects, just because they’re local and they’re probably going to be really excited to work with us. We haven’t met with them yet. And we’re hoping to have that same connection be relevant for refit design. Professionals are an awesome resources, but they’re really busy. Our goal is to say, you professional person who works 9 to 5 — granted you probably work other times and I’m sure you have a family — but are you up for meeting with us two or three times a week and maybe helping us with some of our projects? And engaging out in the community, because that’s something that people always talk about. Outreach, outreach, outreach! Excellent; we will do outreach.

We wrote the proposal for the grant. So now that’s just going and giving presentations and talking to a couple of people within the Institute to get them behind us. … And that’s just a process that takes a little bit of time. In terms of research and community consumables, those two are most directly tied to other groups at MIT. I think those two groups right now are primarily just establishing a good working group and contacting professors who seem to have an interest in the topic.

The one thing that surprised me about everyone who is on this committee — because I’ve worked with a couple different project groups in the past — was that when I said, ‘Why are you here?’ everyone had an answer. … At the same time, we’re obviously still looking for other people.

TT: You said 16 members, right?

AJ: Yes, 16. So that would be two or three people per topic.

TT: How can students get involved? Is there anything else you would like to add?

AJ: They can e-mail me, they can call me. They can come visit me, but I live far away. They can write grant proposals or they can join the committee — but I think that the thing we’re trying to achieve is that you don’t have to be in the committee to be immediately involved in what it’s trying to do. …

One other initiative that I didn’t mention is called MIT Ecology. You walk around in the middle of the winter, it’s all dark, there’s no green stuff, you’re all depressed because you’re failing done of your classes, and you’re like, please, I just want to rest, I want to curl up in the sunshine, and I wish I was in a nice tropical place. So, this part of the initiative is basically going to start with just green roofs. Grass. So you’re looking down Google Earth, you can’t see MIT. It’s gone, it’s invisible.

We feel that that would be an interesting first step, because it’s pretty easy. It takes some roof restructuring and some load calculations, but at least on a number of the buildings on MIT, I’m pretty sure that it would be [possible]. … And then ideally to build a structure over one of the them where people could come and reflect and watch ecologically systems and just be really happy, all the time. So that’s one of the more friendly, do-able [projects]. And we haven’t figured exactly out how that is going to be funded, whether that’s something that we would raise money to do ourselves … or whether it’s something MIT would get really excited about. We’ve been in contact with most of the professional associations — some international, mostly in this hemisphere — who build green roofs, and we’ve been talking to them about the practice and the process, and who is really interested in seeing that way of dealing with rooftops become more prevalent in the United States. We figured that those were either good people to advise us or to support it as a project.

We also have two people working on education and curriculum. But in terms of tangible products, I don’t know what that’s going to be. … I personally think that, of all of the pieces of a sustainable campus, that’s the one that is most tackled.