Student ideas take shape at Sustainable U

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A. Sue Weisler

Spencer Kingsbury, a chemical engineering major at the University of Rochester, participated in the Sustainable University IdeaLab. Kingsbury is part of a student team developing a smart power switch.

The best way to predict your future is to create it yourself.

This is one of the mantras of James Barlow, a business coach who travels the country teaching college students how to create innovative technologies and products.

RIT’s Center for Student Innovation, along with Barlow, introduced a new twist to this formula: guide students on how to help their universities become more sustainable. Nearly 40 undergraduate and graduate students from nine universities around the country gave up their final days of holiday break to immerse themselves in RIT’s five-day Sustainable University IdeaLab.

“The IdeaLab program aims to find incredibly talented students with ideas and take them through a robust proven process that generates viable, exciting business models and ideas,” says Barlow, program manager of outreach at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. “Most universities generally have an environmental, political, economic and educational imperative to try to raise their sustainability agenda, and what better way to do that than by helping students come up with viable ideas that can tangibly affect sustainability on their campus?”

Brainstorming sessions spawned hundreds of ideas scrawled on neon-colored Post-It notes that dotted the Innovation Center’s white walls. Some of the students’ initial ideas included biodegradable containers, creating a pump system to recycle water, an app that tracks RIT’s carbon footprint, a live energy consumption feed, cooking stations in the dining halls, reusing the ice from the hockey rink and food cooked on demand.

Following a culling process, students formed teams around ideas they were most passionate about.

Eric Irish, a third-year RIT information science and technology major from Trumansburg, N.Y., teamed up with several other RIT students and a University of Rochester student to design a smart power switch for individual rooms in residence halls that can send data to a master server monitoring power usage.

“The idea would be that students put their identification card into a slot that turns on the lights and appliances in their rooms when they come in and they would remove their card when they leave,” says Irish. “It could help save the university a lot of money and energy and hopefully people would feel good about reducing their energy consumption. We would also try to offer incentives and have residence halls compete against one another to see who could save the most.”

Kim Davies, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who’s pursuing a dual master’s degree in landscape architecture and city planning, participated in the Sustainable University program. She works at UPenn’s Office of Sustainability and wanted to learn what students at other schools are doing to work toward more sustainable campuses.

“It’s been really interesting and a lot of fun to work with other students and RIT engineers and learn from their experiences,” says Davies. “It’s been great to share ideas and find out what everybody else is working on.”

Davies’ team is designing a reusable to-go food container for dining facilities that would be affordable for universities and durable when cleaned with industrial washers.

Along with RIT faculty and Center for Student Innovation staff, Enid Cardinal, senior sustainability advisor to the president, participated in the IdeaLab to provide feedback and share insight on RIT’s current sustainability practices. The level of student engagement impressed her.

“Most people have a difficult time grasping what sustainability is about, seeing the complexity of the issues. This effort is not only inspiring ideas, but students have to really immerse themselves in all of the challenges to understand how interconnected they are,” says Cardinal. “Like government, with universities, we ‘silo’ things in different departments—there is food, energy, waste—but they are all interconnected. So when you pull one thing, something changes over here. It’s exciting for me to see students starting to understand that and trying to look at larger system solutions.”

With support from the center, the student teams are continuing to work on their product ideas and at the end of February will present their business plans to potential sponsors for seed funding.

Did you know...

  • RIT has made a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Carbon neutrality means having zero net impact on the climate. RIT is currently exploring alternatives to the use of fossil fuels in its operations, which release carbon into the atmosphere. To learn more about the initiative, go to
  • Clinton Global Initiative commitment: In Sept. 2011, RIT President Bill Destler and Paychex Inc. founder and chairman B. Thomas Golisano committed to sharing the model of sustainability education developed at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability with five universities in developing countries around the world.
  • In 2011, 34 percent of RIT’s food purchases were locally sourced.
  • RIT is currently installing LED lamps in hallways and large common areas in several buildings to cut lighting energy in half from existing high-efficiency fluorescent lamps.
  • RIT has switched to single-stream recycling in an effort to make recycling even easier and decrease the amount of waste sent to landfills.