When Stevens Institute of Technology announced it would begin sourcing all campus electricity entirely from local renewable energy sources beginning in fall 2021, it placed Stevens in a very small class of universities in the U.S. to formalize such a commitment.
The decision was the latest in an impressive series of environmentally responsible initiatives for the university — and in an era when 75% of college applicants report being influenced by the sustainability of colleges they are considering, this is helping set Stevens apart.
"A kind of collective effort is really beginning to ramp up here, and we are beginning to acquire industry partners as well," notes environmental engineering professor Dibyendu "Dibs" Sarkar, who created and directs most of the university's sustainability programming.
Green buildings, solar power, EVs, bikes
In fact, Stevens has taken action ahead of the curve on many environmental measures:
- The university's Davidson Lab and Center for Environmental Systems (CES) has long partnered with municipal, state and federal agencies such as NOAA, New York City and the Department of Defense to produce pioneering research in storm surge modeling, wastewater conversion and biofuel development.
- Power-generating solar panels were installed on the roofs of the campus athletics facility and library in 2007, with additional panels added to campus dormitories, parking facilities and a laboratory building in 2010. Many campus facilities also utilize cogeneration technologies that conserve energy by simultaneously generating electricity and heating water.
- More than two tons of waste cooking oil from the university's dining services are transported to a Clifton, New Jersey facility each year, where they are reprocessed into biodiesel fuel — the carbon equivalent of removing two motor vehicles from roadways annually.
- Electric vehicle charging stations were incorporated into the Babbio Center's parking facility in 2018, with more coming to the Howe Center later in 2021.
- The newly constructed Academic Gateway Complex was certified as LEED Gold when it opened in 2019, signifying significant energy and water conservation. (The rising University Center Complex will be targeted to achieve LEED Silver or higher when it opens in 2022.)
- All paper products in public restrooms on campus have been tree-free since 2020, thanks to a partnership with Long Island-based Emerald Brand.
- Recycled-paper sources are also given priority when purchasing for other types of paper needs — and businesses situated within 250 miles of Stevens' Hoboken campus are given priority when sourcing supplies and services.
- Pre-COVID bike-sharing programs, reimbursements for more than 100 employees taking public transit to campus, and more than 150 bike parking spaces on campus have all helped to reduce the university community's carbon footprint.
- A sustainability seminar series has operated at Stevens since Sarkar created it in 2016; it now counts six corporate sponsors, including naming partner Hugo Neu Corporation.
"We are working on building and promoting a culture of sustainability," explains Luke Hansen, Stevens' transportation demand management manager. "When students, staff and faculty begin to realize there are like-minded people on campus, information about sustainability spreads and participation grows."
"You might learn you can compost waste right in the town where you live; you might learn you can receive a reimbursement for part or all of your monthly transit pass. All these small acts make a difference."
Accolades for infrastructure, curriculum, planning
The environmental community has taken notice.
In 2020, Stevens was elevated to the rank of a STARS Gold institution, improving upon its previous Silver ranking. The ranking is based upon the comprehensive STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) campus assessment framework.
The tool evaluates physical campus facilities and environmental initiatives such as buildings, infrastructure, transportation planning, recycling programming, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction and bicycle-friendliness — but also considers sustainability curricula, faculty and student environmental research, and transparent disclosure of university investments.
"Stevens Institute of Technology has demonstrated a substantial commitment to sustainability by achieving a STARS Gold Rating and is to be congratulated for their efforts," commented Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Executive Director Meghan Fay Zahniser.
"As a technological university known for innovating, Stevens is dedicated to finding solutions to help protect our environment — and to applying those approaches on our campus and in our classrooms," said President Nariman Farvardin.
The university was a particularly strong national performer in sustainable transportation initiatives — including (pre-pandemic) a new commuter club and increased carpooling resources, shuttles, community bicycles and mass transit credits — and conservation and management measures, which include recently constructed bioswales, bioretention planters and rain gardens to collect stormwater runoff on campus.
"This recognition affirms Stevens’ commitment to making sustainability integral to both the operations of the school and the educational programs we offer," notes Sarkar.
Also in 2020, the Sierra Club ranked Stevens as one of the top 100 universities in the U.S. and Canada for environmental quality. The organization used its own weighting of AAHSE's data in 18 categories to determine the rankings.
"The schools on this list have shown incredible resourcefulness as they have innovated new ways to maintain — and in many cases, further—their sustainability objectives," noted the organization when releasing the rankings.
And the Princeton Review also recently tabbed Stevens as one of its 2021 "Green Colleges," using a rankings methodology that combines university-reported data with student surveys.
"These schools demonstrate their commitment to sustainability in a range of innovative ways. We recommend them highly to all students seeking to learn and live at a green college," said Rob Franek, Princeton Review editor in chief.
Students making a difference, motivated by environmental concerns
Students have made major contributions to sustainability design, research and planning both on campus and in local municipalities.
"Our students have helped so many local communities," notes Sarkar, including the development of sustainability management plans for Stevens and a range of New Jersey communities such as Jersey City, Secaucus, West Orange and West New York— as well as for Ramapo College's northern New Jersey campus and a preliminary draft plan for the transportation agency NJ TRANSIT.
"We have also seen rapid growth in applications to the university's sustainability degree programs," Sarkar adds.
The flagship master's program, for instance — which received approximately 10 applications during 2016, its first year — now sees more than 60 applicants each year for the dozen or so students it can accommodate annually.
Ada Heinze, an undergraduate chemical engineering major from Maryland, developed an increased interest in the field during two cooperative education programs — including one treating and decontaminating soil impacted by petroleum-based contaminants — and a graduate-level environmental management course.
M.S. - Sustainability Management
M.Eng. - Environmental Engineering (Environmental Management Concentration)
Dual M.S. / MBA - Sustainability Management
Graduate Certificate - Environmental Management
Minor - Green Engineering
Over the course of a single semester, her student team presented projects on the environmental impact of oil spills; managing the challenge of copper pollution in the Great Lakes region; and green infrastructure design for a coastal New Jersey boulevard that incorporates specially engineering ECOncrete seawalls, oyster reefs and sand dunes.
Now Heinze expects to apply to Stevens' graduate program in sustainability.
"The program has really inspired me so far," she says. "I really do want to do my part to make a difference when I begin a career, and as a chemical engineer, I feel I can take a route to that."
Viravid Na Nagara M.S. '18 — a doctoral candidate from Thailand working under Sarkar's supervision — engineered and installed a Stevens-developed green mulch in a rain garden in Mill Creek Point Park in Secaucus, New Jersey.
The mulch filters out metals and petroleum hydrocarbons generated by vehicles, as well as nutrients like phosphorus from urban stormwater runoff, helping prevent both water pollution and dangerous, oxygen-depleting algal blooms.
"Runoff has become a big problem," Na Nagara explains. "The copper in brakes, the zinc in tires, the lead in house paint, the nutrients from excess fertilizers: all of this runs off into water supplies, bays, rivers and the ocean.
"Developing green technologies to address these challenges has been a perfect fit for me. I'm doing what I am passionate about, working in the field and the lab, and meeting people in industry and government. It is so exciting and rewarding to see the green technologies we develop here helping to keep pollutants out of the environment."
"The Town of Secaucus is proud to partner with Stevens Institute of Technology to implement important green infrastructure research in our community, contributing to our stormwater management goals and providing another way to help improve the Hackensack River watershed," says Jennifer Schneider, the town's environmental coordinator.
Green careers in a greener future
Fran Levy, a sustainability management master's student from Ocean County, New Jersey, selected Stevens for her graduate studies to make a difference.
"I want to put my foot in the environmental field, not merely be a chemist," she says. "This program has been so fulfilling, working on projects such as natural solutions to the societal problem of lead in drinking water. Professors in the program are truly passionate; they listen to their students, and are always there to help.
"They also come from many fields and industries, so they give us exposure to many possible career paths. And the small size of this program ensures a lot of one-to-one contact, giving us the highest possible learning outcomes in my opinion."
"Stevens' sustainability students are particularly valuable to companies and agencies, because most of them have a technical background and are also passionate about the cause," agrees Sarkar. "They join the workforce armed with an understanding of sustainability tools such as life-cycle analysis, environmental impact analysis, greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and analysis, and carbon accounting."
In another effort, CES director Christos Christodoulatos supervises multiple student-faculty projects in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense in wastewater treatment, mitigation and reuse, including the development of novel microalgae-derived biofuels from carbon- and nitrogen-rich wastewater streams.
From small-scale experiments in flasks, the interdisciplinary project has progressed to a successful greenhouse-sized pilot study of algae cultivation, producing more than two dozen journal papers (many co-authored by students) along the way.
Next, says Christodoulatos, his faculty-student teams will scale up to a one-acre reactor experiment. The technology may be viable commercially within as little as one to two years.
"Green jobs are going to be the jobs of the future; already in 2021, we are seeing so many sustainability jobs beginning to open up," says Sarkar. "Demand is very strong, while the supply of technically trained people is limited.
"If you have some technical skills and you care about the future of the Earth and the people who live here, Stevens' sustainability programs are for you. They will help shape your passion into a career that will create an impact."
Research in air and water quality, climate change
Stevens faculty also continue to produce leading-edge research in a variety of sustainability areas such as clean air, clean water, pollution reduction, transportation planning and climate change resiliency:
- Sarkar experiments with natural grasses that remove pharmaceutical compounds and other contaminants from wastewater, installing and monitoring pilot plots in combination with a biodegradable green chemical in urban locations in New Jersey and Texas to cost-effectively remove lead from contaminated soils in residential properties and parks.
- Environmental engineering professor Xiaoguang Meng has developed and tested a number of technologies, including specially manufactured electrospun polymer nanofibers, that filter and remove toxic heavy metals from water supplies.
- Physicist Knut Stamnes works with NASA to develop algorithms enabling more accurate satellite imagery, helping to enhance data streams that are critical for scientists assessing regional and global environmental quality.
- Working with a corporate partner, chemical engineering professor and department chair Adeniyi Lawal has developed a novel process to recapture and convert atmosphere-warming methyl bromide gases used to fumigate forest products and foods.
- Transportation systems professor Yeganeh Heyari analyzes improvements in vehicle automation and their potential impacts on air quality, helping build the case for more intelligent vehicles and traffic management.
- Civil engineering professors Yi Bao and Weina Meng devise and test strong new materials that hold the potential to cleanse the air of carbon and of acid rain-causing, warming-inducing pollutants.
- Professor Valentina Prigiobbe leverages machine learning and other data science tools to improve statistical models used to identify aging sewage infrastructure impacted by groundwater flooding, infiltration and the movement of radioactivity through soil.
A host of other efforts are focused on quantifying, predicting, preparing for and alleviating the impacts of climate change. The Davidson Lab's pioneering work in flood, surge and sea level monitoring and beach replenishment, for instance, is supported by multiple partners and collaborators such as the National Science Foundation, NJ TRANSIT and Princeton University.
Renewable energy research investigations ranging from better batteries and smarter power grids and wind farms to novel bioreactors and ocean wave-power harvesters also continue to develop new technologies and insights that will help ensure a more diverse, lower-impact energy mix in the future.
"We have not only established Stevens as a leader in higher education sustainability, but have also benefitted the entire campus community," summarizes Robert Maffia, university vice president for facilities and campus operations.
"Our students, faculty and staff now experience more sustainable commuting options, healthier facilities, and a beautiful green campus that also serves as a living laboratory."