Annual Sustainability Forums expand collaboration opportunities for campuses

Penn State New Kensington lion shrine

On May 15 and 19, the Sustainability Institute held its yearly Commonwealth Campus Sustainability Forums virtually, co-hosted by Penn State Berks for the eastern campuses and Penn State New Kensington for the western region.

Credit: Rebecca Dietrich

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On May 15 and 19, the Sustainability Institute (SI) held its yearly Commonwealth Campus (CWC) Sustainability Forums, co-hosted by Penn State Berks for the eastern campuses and Penn State New Kensington (PSNK) for the western region.

The forums, held virtually via Zoom, presented an opportunity for Commonwealth Campus students, faculty, staff and administrators to share their knowledge on sustainability-related topics and to learn more about the courses, community service projects and engagement programs actively being pursued by each other’s campuses.

“As always, it is great to hear about initiatives and ideas taking place at other campuses in order to consider possible future events and initiatives at our own campus,” said Mahsa Kazempour, associate professor of science education at Penn State Berks. She, along with Ruth Herstek, Penn State New Kensington's director of academic advising, and their respective chancellors, worked for several months planning this event and quickly adjusted to an online format.

Each of the regional forums began with a plenary session, where Michele Halsell, assistant director of the Sustainability Institute; the host chancellors from the New Kensington and Berks campuses; and representatives from the other Commonwealth Campuses presented updates on each campus’ sustainability initiatives.

Some of the initiatives and projects highlighted include: weaving sustainability content and activities into economics, business, computer programming and art courses; integrating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into student orientations, leadership training, and awards; creating campus gardens and pollinator gardens; and strengthening partnership with local communities to build sustainability literacy and foster economic development. Several campuses, including the Harrisburg campus, discussed their plans to establish Sustainability Councils and Green Teams to further incorporate sustainability education throughout existing curricula and in strategic planning. 

The plenary session closed with remarks from Paul Shrivastava, chief sustainability officer at Penn State and director of the Sustainability Institute, who gave an overview of SI’s institutionalization of sustainability throughout the University, the Faculty Senate’s climate resolution, and the connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Shrivastava emphasized that the recovery from the ongoing pandemic is an opportune moment and must include measures to combat climate change.

“Business as usual is not an option,” said Shrivastava. “We need to think about measures and programs that will allow us to address climate change and COVID simultaneously.”

Four afternoon workshops over the two days focused on specific aspects of sustainability and offered a chance for campus representatives and University Park staff to explore the SDGs, food systems and operations, and to catalyze an understanding of the interdependence of the global goals. Workshop attendees were split up into five groups and each given three U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to use in determining how their specific SDGs could intersect with one another on campus sustainability projects.

One group received the SDGs "2: Zero Hunger," "7: Affordable and Clean Energy" and "12: Responsible Consumption and Production." This group discussed how increasing demand for renewable energy could lead to the creation of more jobs, thus leading towards increased household income. This increased income would then provide members of the workforce with a greater opportunity to purchase more food, satisfying SDG 2 and SDG 7.

Kazempour said that she felt the dialogue in the forums was constructive and feels confident they motivated attendees to take action.

“We walk away from such events with ideas and a sense of hope and motivation to not only continue what we are currently doing but also consider implementing other ideas we gained at the various sessions," added Kazempour. "Each of us attending the breakout sessions hopefully gained information about possible resources that are available through SI and Penn State as well as possible ideas we may want to consider implementing at our campus."

Recordings and resources from the eastern and western sustainability forum workshops can be accessed here.