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Students find solutions for USC campus sustainability

Trojans think creatively about the environment, presenting their ideas in an annual contest as part of a political science course

product photo of a faucet that uses mist
Winners of a sustainability contest winners proposed the use of a water-saving adapter for faucets. (Photo/Courtesy of Alternative Company)

As California faces its worst water crisis in 1,200 years, saving water on campus is seen as a priority. USC undergraduates Sarah Allen, Riley Koidahl and Matt Stern have won first prize in a sustainability contest for their proposal to help USC improve its water conservation. Their plan uses water-saving faucets that can reduce water use by 98 percent per sink.

“The faucets, which screw into existing faucets, work by aerating water in much the same way as a high-pressure hose,” Allen said. And the good news doesn’t stop there. The cost of 1,000 hand washes would drop dramatically to just 13 cents, compared to $6 for the existing older generation faucets.

The three students presented their proposal as part of the Ninth Annual Sustainability Competition, a key element in Jefferey Sellers’ “Environmental Challenges” course. The political science class examines the challenges of environmental problem-solving at the personal, local, national and global scales, with a focus on the issue of climate change.

The idea behind the competition is to get students to think creatively about how to make USC as sustainable as possible. In teams of two or three, the students then research and develop a project proposal that they present to the class. A jury of student activists in the field of sustainability at USC then awards first- and second-place prizes for the best projects.

“I was very excited at the idea of being able to flesh out and pitch our own idea about how to make USC a more environmentally friendly and sustainable campus,” said Allen, a junior majoring in arts, technology and the business of innovation at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy.

Contest entries put into action

“This is the longest-running sustainability competition on the USC campus, and has contributed to a number of innovations the university has adopted as part of its initiatives for sustainability,” said Sellers, associate professor of political science and public policy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The purpose of the contest is to encourage civic responsibility in an era when sustainability must play an important role in citizenship, he said.

“I believe that any professional has to be educated in the civics of sustainability and that involves making personal and organizational choices to do things more sustainably. The whole purpose of this course is for the students to take what they have learned out into the community.”

Past contest participants have already had the satisfaction of seeing their proposals implemented by the university.

“The bike lanes on campus were developed as a proposal in this class before being implemented,” Sellers said. “Also the introduction of reusable cups in the dining hall was another proposal that originated in this class.”

As part of their research, students explored the actions taken by other universities to improve sustainability.

“It was interesting researching how other universities, specifically in California, have reacted to the water crisis the state has been experiencing,” Allen said.

Another water-, energy- and money-saving proposal came from Greg Rosen and Christina Braa, who suggested installing a “shower manager” in every shower stall on the USC campus.

The device works by reducing water flow by two thirds after the first five minutes, thereby encouraging shorter showers. Rosen and Braa calculated that for an $18,750 outlay to install shower managers in all residence halls, the university would save more than 20 million gallons of water and 3 kilowatts of energy per year — an estimated savings of more than $500,000. Installing the device across campus would also result in preventing the release of 474 tons of harmful CO2 annually.

Spending just $18,000 on shower managers would be huge because financially it would save USC a lot of money and prevent tons of CO2 from going into the environment.

Greg Rosen

“Spending just $18,000 on shower managers would be huge because financially it would save USC a lot of money and prevent tons of CO2 from going into the environment,” said Rosen, a business administration major at the USC Marshall School of Business.

‘Meatless Mondays’ and composting

Brian Chen and Justin Ko won second prize for their “Meatless Mondays” proposal to lower greenhouse gases by serving only vegetarian meals in USC dining halls on the first day of the week.

“We want to educate students about how dangerous meat is to the environment,” said Chen, an economics major at USC Dornsife. “Eighteen percent of total greenhouse gases created by humans are from animal agriculture and half the water consumed in the United States is used for livestock. By introducing “Meatless Mondays,” we would save 456 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per person.”

Two contest proposals argued in favor of composting leftover food from USC’s dining halls to eliminate waste in favor of creating bio products that can be used as fertilizers on campus.

“This project would also educate people for later life by teaching students, faculty and staff about the benefits of composting,” said Clare Sargent, an industrial and systems engineering major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Koidahl, a junior majoring in arts, technology, and the business of innovation at the USC Iovine and Young Academy, said the contest made him look at sustainability differently.

“This contest opened my eyes to the sustainability challenges USC faces as a giant ecosystem of water, electricity and transportation infrastructure,” he said.

“Even with the mass population at USC, incremental individual changes, such as using more efficient faucets, make a significant positive impact over time.

“Learning, for me, happens at the intersection of disciplines and learning styles, which this contest capitalized on,” he said. “It was a valuable learning experience.”

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