The irony struck me early on during my short road trip to campuses that took part Thursday in “Focus the Nation ,” the countrywide effort to promote environmental awareness and activism . In my two years of covering Washington-area events for Inside Higher Ed, never once had I needed a car. For this assignment, which involved visiting four colleges over eight hours to provide a sense of how students at different types of institutions commemorate the event, I logged 48 miles in my non-hybrid vehicle.
Carbon offset ideas, anyone?
Keep in mind, there was no shortage of eligible colleges in the Washington region to visit. Many publicized their "teach-in day" events well in advance, just as student and faculty organizers did at more than 1,500 colleges across the country. (Those behind the effort are calling it the largest "teach-in" in the nation's history.) But this trip, if not sustainable, needed to at least be attainable. So I began less than a mile from my home.
9:55 a.m., American University. Given the early start to this panel discussion, "Local Solutions to a Global Problem," I promise not to read too much into student attendance. (Anyone who's taught the late-week 9 a.m. class should know what I mean.) Exactly 10 people are inside the lounge when I arrive. That's four panel members and six people in the audience.
Claire Roby, a senior at American and director of environmental policy for the student government, promises it has nothing to do with student apathy. The night before, she says, 30 people watched the screening of a Webcast  addressing climate change issues and presented by Focus the Nation. Event organizers were up against a tough lineup: a varsity basketball game and an on-campus visit from Jerry Springer. By Roby's count, 180 people would come to the series of panel discussions held throughout the day.
Campus organizers can always expect the usual suspects to attend -- members of the environmental club, the sustainability coordinator, faculty in the sciences. Alex Tinker, a spokesman for the national initiative, said last week that "the concept is we don’t want these events to preach to the choir — the people who would normally spend hours talking about global warming. We’re looking to get to the critical mass of students who aren’t aware of the depth of the problem, and are just going to class that day.”
Roby says she was pleased that she didn't recognize about half the people who came to the film screening, and many more who came to the panel events.
During the morning panel, Roby explains how she uses a meter that plugs into the wall to determine her energy footprint. Her resolution: Use blow dryers and flattening irons sparingly and unplug them after use. William Suter, director of facilities management at American, touts the university's bike-sharing program and its efforts to transform the fleet of campus vehicles to biodiesel and hybrid.
Roby reflects on American's efforts to keep green issues in the forefront. Her position in student government is new, and that group funded the majority of the day's events, she notes.
During questioning of the panelists, a mother of an American graduate points out that plastic cups, rather than reusable coffee mugs, are sitting on the tables.
"If students rose up, this would stop on this campus in pretty quick order," Suter says, pointing to a cup. "Sometimes things need to be a result of student activism."
Noon, Gallaudet University. Robert R. Davila, president of the institution, says to 40 or so people gathered in the university auditorium that he'll see to it that more organic products are used on campus. He exits, and students follow soon thereafter for a demonstration from a group that's traveling the United States in a tour bus powered by vegetable oil . The Gallaudet crowd asks questions about how the bus runs. They see a demonstration and learn that riders make stops at restaurants across the country in search of grease.
Earl Terry, a leader of Green Gallaudet, says the student group has just recently formed, and that this is the first major environmental event in the campus's history. It's about time, he asserts. Both students and faculty point out that the university's energy bills have soared in recent years, in part due to rising utility prices.
Leala Holcomb, president of the group, credits Facebook with providing a forum to get out the word about Focus the Nation. "We know some students would rather eat or sleep than come to a workshop like this," Holcomb says. "We have to make it fun and personal for them."
Davila's speech is, in essence, the kickoff to the three-day event. The campus is hosting a green fair in which local businesses pitch their environmentally-friendly products. Faculty and students speak on panels. And as is the case at many campuses this week, Gallaudet is screening "An Inconvenient Truth." Professors are asked to incorporate green themes into their classes. Caroline Solomon, an associate professor of biology and faculty adviser to Green Gallaudet, is teaching students this term about environmental ethics. But what about professors for whom the subject of global warming doesn't arise naturally in class?
"It's completely optional," she says. "We're seeing lots of creativity."
A psychology professor is teaching about changing attitudes toward the environment. A foreign language instructor is speaking about the environment in other countries, she says.
This brings up an important point about the use of the phrase "teach-in." These sessions and demonstrations aren't the chain-yourself-to-the-quad-fountain type events. Some professors at Gallaudet let students out of classes to attend seminars; others might mention the day's events briefly. Students are engaged in the discussions but don't seem interested in disrupting the flow of campus life.
2:45 p.m., Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale campus. Nancy Chamberlain, assistant dean in the department of recreation, parks and leisure studies, clearly knows her audience for today's lesson on climate change. "This is an outdoor recreation class -- why do industries that some of you work in care about global warming?" she asks.
Students bring up the "shortened winter season" and how it affects ski resorts and the tourism industry as a whole. Chamberlain is talking about whom to trust and where to turn for information on the severity of global warming. Most students say they think it's real; fewer hands are raised when asked who's worried.
Chamberlain has asked students to research their own carbon footprints through a Web site that tracks dietary choices, travel schedules and home routines. They throw out numbers (in tons): 11.5, 8.5, 5.3, 9.5. One student's number is off the charts. He's a daily meat eater (which bumps us his total) and keeps his home temperature high.
Chamberlain's own pledge -- stop using a mini-fridge. She proposes a class project. What if students measure how much energy the college system could save by shutting off the lights in soda machines? Several students show interest.
"This is not a [political] party thing, folks," she says. "It may be discussed in the world of politics, but here's the really cool thing about the environment. Everything that happens to me will happen to you whether you support one party or the other."
One campus not on my tour is Bowie State University, in Washington's Maryland suburbs. William Lawrence, a professor of biology there, says he expressed interested in holding Focus the Nation events but couldn’t find a critical mass of students available to help.
Students have organized recycling drives and are known to have good showings at Earth Day events, Lawrence says. But the historically black college doesn’t have an environmental club, and with a largely nonresidential student body it can be hard to mobilize. The institution also doesn’t have an environmental science program, let alone a course, which he says is a large reason why the campus green movement has yet to take off.
“There’s some interest, but really no way to focus it yet,” he says.
Lee Paddock, associate dean for environmental studies and a professorial lecturer in law at George Washington University, agrees that environmental studies faculty and students often serve as catalysts.
Paddock, who isn’t involved in his campus’s Focus the Nation events, says it’s also a matter of getting students and faculty outside the sciences to integrate climate change into their curriculum. It’s also true, he says, that professors are watched closely by observers who question whether global warming should be taught in certain ways.
“There’s certainly a set of questions about how far one should go,” he says. “My hope is that the discussion is around what the science tells us, and what this means in terms of how to act.”
5:15 p.m., George Washington University. On Paddock's campus, residents of the "Green GW House " are giving tours of their two-level townhouse. They are showing off low-flow shower heads and organic foods, talking about using tote bags to shop and a car-sharing service to get around the city. The house residents, considered by the university a living and learning cohort, have pledged to use bicycles for trips within a two-mile radius of campus. Everything is done to minimize energy and water usage, and reduce waste production. Roommates have a $500 project budget.
Upstairs, Maggie Desmond, a house resident, points out her organic sheets. They cost a bit more, she says, but they're worth it. And they're holding up just fine. Everything in the house today worth pointing out has a label, from the plants to the toilet dams. Desmond says friends that visit typically don't know what measures house residents are taking.
"Without the place cards it's not that obvious," she says. "That's the idea -- to have these things be seamless."
Desmond's group, Green GW, is in its second year of existence. It's the residents' first year in the apartment, and they have one more person living there than did last year's group, so these roommates haven't yet measured energy savings, Desmond says.
For a project in her environmental policy class last year, Desmond wrote about how she would furnish a green apartment and what policies she would implement. Today, her professor is among those taking the tour.
"I'm glad to see you've followed through on this," he says. "Lots of projects end up on my desk and I have no idea if they ever pan out."