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A New Crop of Environmentalists

Ramapo College's Groundbreaking Sustainability Programs

Within the microcosm of college life, Michael Edelstein, PhD and Ashwani Vasishth, PhD are challenging students to think both locally and globally about the environment. A product of the generation that first recognized the environmental movement in the 1970’s, Edelstein’s expertise lies in the study of how humans are affected by their relationship with the environment from a psychological standpoint.

Having joined the faculty at Ramapo College in 1974, he has a longstanding and distinguished career advocating for environmental studies and policies on the campus grounds and beyond.

“Developing a practice of not only teaching but living and doing, is what the Ramapo environmental program is all about,” says Michael. The sustainability discussion began in the 1980s with a growing interest in renewable energy, recycling, farming and composting. During that time, many Ramapo faculty members became engaged with a global network of activists and became immersed in their learning community. Thus, Ramapo hosts guest speakers with world-class expertise.

Every student who attends Ramapo is exposed to sustainability and ecological literacy, which is infused throughout every major--not just the environmental ones. “We aim to create the elements of a sustainability community,” says Michael, who created a course called ‘World Sustainability’ as a curriculum for students of any course of study.

Campus innovations include the Sharp Sustainability Education Center which also helps to incorporate environmental literacy and understanding across disciplines. Students can take advantage of both volunteer and for-credit internship opportunities available through the Center, and it is a hub for advanced study on environmental issues. Workshops and programs on energy savings and sustainability are also held in the structure which houses a “smart” classroom, a display gallery, an office, and support spaces.

The Center demonstrates the concepts of green building by using natural daylight, ventilation, recycled and environmentally-friendly materials. Special fixtures help reduce water consumption, and a geo-thermal system provides heating and cooling. The college is continuing to seek support to develop and expand the Center.

Susan Petro, DVM, a member of Ramapo’s teaching staff is in charge of the greenhouse where you will find plants for research and demonstration. “If I am teaching a class about plants with waxy cuticles, I can bring one in from the greenhouse as an example,” she says. Ramapo’s Garden Club uses it for cuttings from which they grow plants for fundraisers, and the sustainable living facility at the school starts seedlings for their garden there. The greenhouse produces both ornamental plants as well as food plant seedlings. It also produces perennials that provide nectar for the beekeeping program.

The Reed Academy in Oakland approached Ramapo to help design a program for their clients with autism who have aged out of state-run programs. Now, with the assistance of Ramapo faculty and students, Reed offers organic farming, education and food preparation to their clients and can sell produce to support their program. They have also created a vertical farm environment. This consists of using an artificial environment (such as a warehouse) to grow plants. The process allows for production year-round with comparatively fewer bugs and disease than traditional farming. It provides fresher produce because of its close proximity to market. Having a vertical farm on campus is a future goal of the environmental department.

Ashwani is also working to make all aspects of Ramapo College more sustainable. “In many ways, we are ahead of the curve,” he says. “Our facilities department has installed LED’s and motion detector lighting to save energy. All campus building roofs have been painted white to reflect the sun and lessen the heat load on the building in hot weather, which lowers air conditioning costs.” Harnessing the sun is a renewable form of creating energy and solar panel installations are throughout the campus and generate more energy than they use.

The cafeteria offers vegan and vegetarian options for students and food waste is composted and used for campus gardens and landscaping. A pending DEP grant for an industrial-strength composter on campus will result in zero food waste.

Travel abroad programs bring a great deal of knowledge and value to students and Ashwani leads programs in both Peru and India which focus on sustainability. “We all have an appreciation of globalization in a sense of sharing food and resources across borders,” he says. “However, people feel their voice is taken away because they are swamped by forces at a global level. We try to emphasize the flip side, which is localism.”

Resources and programs on a local level tend to be siloed and isolated. However, the department’s mission is to create a network of resources with other schools and organizations in order to combine sustainability efforts. For example, Ashwani is seeking to find all the colleges and universities that have faculty-led sustainability trips and connect them with the focus of combining programs rather than replicating them.

In addition to classes, the college offers various sustainability-minded clubs offering different ways to get involved. 1Step is a student organization and outreach club focused on localized sustainability and environmental issues, ascertaining that Ramapo meets its commitment to carbon-neutrality.

Ramapo’s Student Living and Ecostewardship Program (SLE) encourages students to live a more mindful life, helping to create awareness of their carbon footprints, the consequences of wasteful behavior and emphasizing growing one’s own food along with community service and healthy, sustainable diets. The student body is very focused on supporting sustainability.

Environmental students also collaborate with business school students to further enhance sustainability practices in business. Ramapo’s undergraduate degrees include: Environmental Studies, Environmental Science, and Sustainability.

“Environmental studies help us to learn where the hope is,” says Mike.

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