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Making Earth Day Visible Every Day With the Launch of Solution Generation at Millersville University

By jennifer tabola
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Instead of traveling to Lancaster, PA, to help kick off Solution Generation’s new partnership with Millersville University, Earth Day 2016 found me in sad solidarity with our warming climate as I spent the day waylaid in bed fighting a 102° fever. Fortunately, my intended wing-woman for the event, ecoAmerica’s new executive assistant Candace Williams, enthusiastically stepped up to carry on with the plan of joining hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and local community members for a second annual Earth Day event. The Millersville gathering celebrated the growing number of opportunities to learn about and contribute to a more sustainable campus and community. This included the unveiling of colorful Solution Generation-sponsored interpretive signage, newly installed throughout the campus to provide background information about organic gardens, raingardens, recycling, and other sustainability projects.

Hosting ecoAmerica’s Solution Generation booth, Candace showcased how Millersville’s efforts echo the ways campuses across the nation are leading on climate solutions by working to reduce carbon emissions and green their facilities, operations, and curriculum. Candace also shared our latest Let’s Talk Climate research, featuring tips for connecting on climate with Millennials and young adults.

Professor Nadine Gardner, Director of the Center for Sustainability, incentivized students to actively participate in the event by providing raffle tickets for eco-friendly prizes, including a new bicycle, to those students who took time to stop and talk with exhibitors. These included a number of active and mass transport organizations, ranging from The Red Rose Transit Authority and Commuter Services of Pennsylvania, to the MU cycling club, whose mission is to “grab your bike, save money, burn calories, help the environment by reducing greenhouse emissions, and have fun!”

Candace reported that the steady stream of student visitors were eager to talk about how it felt to be confronting climate change as a young person, and why they were already taking actions to personally reduce their own climate impact and participate in Millersville University’s many environmental efforts.

Students enthusiastically described their hands-on work in the new, organic “Ville-age Garden” supported by the Center for Sustainability. The garden is inspiring them to fulfill three pillars of a sustainable society: Social Justice (People), Environmental Preservation (Planet), and Economic Vitality (Profit). It features ADA-compliant raised beds made from recycled and renewable materials and integrates sustainable gardening principles from seed to harvest, including incorporating campus-generated compost. A wide variety of groups, including the women’s basketball team, fraternities and sororities, and the graduate school counseling group, have invested countless community service hours to maintain, sow, and harvest the garden, learning valuable practical skills and building community spirit in the process. A portion of the harvest is donated to the campus food bank, and another portion provides campus chefs with fresh produce for dining facilities.

Candace was impressed that the students she spoke with were well versed in climate change science. Many reported already seeing its effects in their everyday lives. Some commented on changing weather patterns, including warmer winters and increases in severe weather events. Reflecting upon this warming phenomena, sophomore Alex stated, “The only cool thing about climate change is the fight against it!” Students also said they noticed fewer bees pollinating the surrounding gardens, and reported migratory birds were staying longer in the winter and coming back earlier in the spring.

The student-run Millersville University Sustainability Group reinforced this connection of climate change to everyday student life by quantifying the carbon impact of common activities, such as a five-minute shower or the use of a space heater in a dorm. When asked to make a carbon-reduction or eco-friendly pledge for the remainder of the year, students committed to measures like turning off water when brushing teeth, unplugging unnecessary appliances when leaving the dorm room, and biking versus driving whenever possible.

Alex (Sophomore) and Kyra (Senior)
Many of the students also expressed a passionate desire to preserve the planet for the next generation. Kyra, a Millersville senior, expressed, “We all know we need to do something to fight climate change to keep the planet just as nice for our children, and our children’s children, as we’ve had it.” Bridging university students with younger K-12 students around environmental learning and contribution is a high priority for Millersville’s Center for Sustainability, and many of the exhibits and projects reflected this commitment. For example, a group of local elementary school students were on hand to exhibit their upcycling of plastic bottles that had been used to fashion art projects.

Millersville students enrolled in the university’s early childhood education program also displayed multiple early education books from the local Lancaster Library that referenced climate change, sustainability, or being eco-friendly. Their goal? To demonstrate that even the youngest generation increasingly has access to learning about sustainability – and that older students have resources that can help them raise awareness and engage their younger peers in fun ways that encourage adopting a sustainability mindset from the beginning.

Other exhibits featured sustainability efforts integrated throughout campus departments, including Finance and Administration, Geography, Dining, Facilities, Art, Education, and Environmental Health and Safety. One popular exhibit showcased the expansion of the TerraCycle pilot program to a larger number of residential dormitories. The partnership with TerraCycle transforms garbage and typical college waste items such as energy bar wrappers and empty toothpaste tubes into useful products like backpacks and wallets that are then sold commercially. The resulting profits in turn are donated to SmileTrain, which provides cleft palate surgeries for children who would otherwise face a future without the tremendous health, social, and emotional benefits of this life-transforming intervention.

Karitza (Sophomore)
Dr. Gardner and students alike are passionate about the opportunity to make a double-good difference by reducing waste while promoting social justice. As sophomore Karitza shared with Candace, “Recycling on campus is really cool. My building was one of the first to allow separation of recycling into paper, plastic and glass – which prevents janitorial staff from having to spend valuable time sorting the recycling – and allows us to easily separate garbage that can generate money to help change a kid’s life. I hope all of our students can soon participate.”

Alas, rainy drizzle postponed plans for Millersville President and Solution Generation Leadership Circle Member Dr. John Anderson and ecoAmerica to cap off the energizing day with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at nearby Wheatland Middle School. Sometime in early fall, however, the two educational communities will come together to commemorate this new partnership, led by the Center for Sustainability, that is working to support support middle school and college students working together to learn organic gardening skills and provide fresh produce to students.

As I recuperated at home, I thought about how fortunate I was that I could rest up, knowing that ecoAmerica was well-represented by my colleague who appreciated the chance to be inspired by the day’s interactions. And I thought about how hard Millersville was likewise working to demonstrate to their students that they can be proud of their university and the leadership that is bringing forth new ways to help them restore the planet. On Earth Day, it was a good reminder that sometimes we all need a little help to heal.

Millersville University is a founding partner of Solution Generation, a coalition of higher education partners committed to leading by example on a path to a positive future for climate solutions. By joining Solution Generation, we commit to working together to educate, engage, and inspire our students, campuses, organizations, communities, and other higher education leaders on climate change solutions.