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St. Kate’s ecological footprint: Linking our emission to our mission

Biology Professor Jill Welter (middle, in stripes) discussing a class assignment with some students.
Biology Professor Jill Welter (middle, in stripes) discussing a class assignment with some students.
Bob Handelman Images

In spring 2008, St. Catherine University senior Brooke Vetter and Assistant Professor of Biology Jill Welter were asked to give a presentation in one of the residence halls. They decided to have the students calculate their ecological footprint and consider how their energy-use habits compared to those of others in the United States and beyond.

“We used a fairly simple calculator that presented the footprint in terms of how many planets it would take to sustain the human population if everyone lived as we do,” Welter says.

The calculator revealed that it would take five planet Earths to sustain the students’ lifestyle.

“Although this was only a simple online calculator, it got us talking about this important justice issue,” she says.

The group discussed the impact of a quick drive to the coffee shop just up the block; the cell phone charger left plugged into the wall; the to-go container quickly picked-up in the cafeteria, then discarded in the trash an hour later; the paper, plastic bags and plastic bottles, all tossed away — “when in reality, there is no such thing as away,” Welter says.

Later, Vetter told Welter that she wanted St. Kate’s to be a place where sustainability would be embedded in the University culture — where it would never cross one’s mind to leave something idly plugged in or to prepare for the day without remembering to bring a coffee mug.

Vetter is one of many St. Kate’s students who have worked to move this vision forward.

In fall 2008, President Andrea Lee, IHM, signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment — and created a mechanism by which students, faculty, staff and administration can work together to create the culture Vetter envisioned. Part of the Climate Commitment requires the University to take inventory of its campus greenhouse gas emissions and develop an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral.

The first inventory was completed last fall as a class project in "Environmental Biology" — co-taught by Welter and Associate Dean of Education Tony Murphy — with 12 student groups working closely with offices across campus from global studies to dining services to purchasing. Caitlin Gray, a 2010 graduate, served as inventory coordinator.

How did we do?

“Overall, we did very well, with our total emissions in line or lower than those of other local colleges our size,” Welter says. “This is a great accomplishment and a testament to the facilities department and many other offices on campus that have pursued sustainable practices. But more importantly, the inventory revealed where we might target further reductions as well as those emissions that are more uniquely ours and tied to our mission as a women’s institution.”

This school year, St. Kate’s will begin collective work on the action plan to reduce its emissions. Student Senate representatives and a new team of student inventory coordinators will help lead the charge.

In "Environmental Biology" this fall, Welter and her students are also gearing up to complete the second greenhouse gas inventory, and new coordinators will soon be busy working with offices across campus.

“The students are excited to be part of this effort and to know that their research and ideas will make a direct contribution to the way we do things at St. Kate’s,” Welter says.

“Environmental sustainability is an important part of our mission, embodied in the daily work of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching,” she adds. “Although the work of the [Climate Commitment] will greatly advance efforts around this aspect of our mission, how we model this value every day will have the strongest influence on students' habits and our campus culture.”

Nov. 2, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: STEM, Students