Elmhurst in Depth

Greening the Campus

Hands-on lessons from a first-year seminar feed a growing campus concern for the environment.

Christine Smith and Gurram Gopal wanted the students in their first-
year seminar to learn more about the dynamics of waste disposal, recycling and composting on a college campus. So they pointed to the garbage bins in the Frick Center cafeteria and invited the students in their course, titled Local Choices, Global Effects, to dig in.

The students conducted annual waste audits—sleeves rolled up, protective gloves on, elbow-deep in the half-eaten lunches, crumpled paper napkins and discarded banana peels left behind by their fellow students. The exercise may have been unappetizing, Gopal admits, but it also was very illuminating.

“Some students are grossed out, yes, but it’s such a revealing project. It’s the best way to appreciate exactly what we are putting into the waste stream,” Gopal said. The audits allowed students to quantify, for example, how much food waste was being tossed into recycling bins and how much recyclable material was ending up in the trash. “I’ve had people tell me that every student should do it.” 

That hands-on approach to understanding what we consume and how we dispose of it was typical of the course, which Smith, director of residence life and associate dean of students, and Gopal, Theophil W. Mueller Endowed Chair and associate professor of business administration, co-taught each autumn from 2007 to 2013. And it helps explain the oversized impact the course had—not just on the students enrolled in it, but on the entire campus community. Students from the course went on to take on leadership roles in the College’s burgeoning campus-wide efforts towards sustainability. This year, Gopal begins developing a new upper-level business course that will explore some of the same topics introduced in the first-year seminar. 

“We wanted students to direct their own learning to an extent, to take more ownership of their education,” Gopal said. “That’s part of the transition to college for first-year students: learning to be more independent.” 

Students in the seminar split into teams and worked with Smith and Gopal on designing class projects. And when the time came for them to present the results of their work, they didn’t address only their fellow students. College administrators and senior staff members, including President S. Alan Ray, visited the class to hear the students present their work. 

Many of the students continued to work on matters of sustainability even after they had moved on from the class. Former class members formed the Greenjays, a student organization focused on environmentalism. They worked with the College’s leadership to initiate Elmhurst’s campus composting program. And they helped introduce the twice-annual electronics recycling event, which now attracts crowds from around Chicago and its suburbs.

Those efforts have been part of an intensified focus on environmentalism on campus over the last decade or so. In 2012, Illinois Campus Sustainability Compact, a statewide program that encourages sustainable practices at colleges and universities, honored Elmhurst for its efforts to protect the environment and create a “green campus.” Gopal says that the lessons his students learned in the seminar contributed to a growing awareness on campus of how individual choices can shape the environment. 

“To change attitudes and to change a culture, you need a few leaders,” Gopal said. “We always wanted the students to lead. So when I look at the changes at Elmhurst in the last few years and I think about how much of that change was driven by students, it feels very gratifying.” 

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