Sustainable Beginnings for the Steel City

Five years ago, as sustainability was emerging as a trend in the marketplace, professors at Colorado State University-Pueblo were looking at ways to integrate it into the curriculum. Their efforts resulted in a minor program in sustainability and today, professors say students are getting hired.

The sustainability trend has spread like a sort of constructive epidemic, landing students jobs almost immediately after gaining experience in the field and providing the university with a rare role in a national sustainability education program.

Sustainability, broadly, is an effort to conserve existing resources and promote their longevity.

“It’s a really broad topic. The easiest way to look at it is as a three-legged stool. So, one leg would represent environment, one leg represents economics, and one leg represents social or cultural community,” said Sarah Spencer-Workman, sustainability education specialist and sustainability minor coordinator at CSU-Pueblo.

“You could be in psychology or sociology and you have to do social sustainability, or you could be in engineering and you have to deal with engineering sustainability technology, or econ and you have to look at concepts and ways you can make the economy more efficient without wasting money.” – Sarah Spencer-Workman, sustainability education specialist and sustainability minor coordinator at CSU-Pueblo

“At all times when you look at sustainability, those legs should be in balance. So, if you take a big chunk out of one, you should balance it back out with another one,” she said.

In the larger community of Pueblo, sustainability has emerged as a trend among businesses.

The word sustainability has been a buzzword among companies the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation has been talking with, said Jack Rink, CEO and President of PEDCO.

“There is a trend that companies want to be known as environmentally friendly,” Rink said. “They want to be socially responsible.”

Rink believes this will lend itself to the sustainability minor students because it is beyond the renewable energy sector.

Rink said PEDCO is talking to a few companies that are considered clean tech because of the way they recycle resources and use energy. But the organization doesn’t often deal with many renewable energy companies because they often don’t create lots of jobs, which is the primary goal of PEDCO. Though, the exception has been the Vestas manufacturing plant south of town.

“You know, Pueblo was built on industry and railroad,” Spencer-Workman said. “In sustainability, there’s a huge industry here that develops clean tech or clean energy if you will. There’s a ton of opportunities. It’s great because industry here has been able to transition in a way that makes sense.”

In Colorado, there are 23,410 jobs in the clean tech industry, and those numbers are growing, according to the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association. Between 2009 and 2014, the industry grew by 22 percent.

Last year, CSU-Pueblo began offering the minor in sustainability to students from all majors. Since its inception, the program’s emphasis has been that it doesn’t have an emphasis, or at least not one any narrower than the broad concept of sustainability.

Peter Olayiwola, a junior economics major working toward a minor in sustainability, said he thinks the minor could apply to everyone.

“You could be in psychology or sociology and you have to do social sustainability, or you could be in engineering and you have to deal with engineering sustainability technology, or econ and you have to look at concepts and ways you can make the economy more efficient without wasting money,” he said. “So, I think it’s beneficial to everyone.”

Spencer-Workman estimated that around 20 students are currently enrolled in the minor. Her goal is an ambitious one: to enroll every CSU-Pueblo student in the program.

“It would be awesome to have all students, of course,” Spencer-Workman said. “It has the capacity to grow as big as we’d like it here on campus.”

As challenging as that may seem, the program has already made its way into the curriculum in more than 100 classes at the university.

“So, at some point in your career here at CSU, you should have touched on sustainability. Math 101 talks about sustainability, psychology and environment talks about sustainability, and there’s bio sustainability, chemistry. Art even has a sustainable class,” Spencer-Workman said.

Spencer-Workman said the minor is relatively straightforward. Only two classes are required of students and the rest are electives that incorporate sustainability concepts.

One of the mandatory classes, senior capstone experience, requires students to research sustainability as it applies to their field of study. Some students in the program have taken the class as a group, each representing a different discipline.

“You know, our hope is eventually that we have a three-person team and you’ve got maybe a chemist, a communications major, and maybe a psychology major and they’re all working on one project together with different parts of sustainability,” Spencer-Workman said.

One elective course offered in the minor is the LEED Lab, a program that was introduced to universities by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2013. When the program was initiated, CSU-Pueblo was one of four universities in the nation to participate. Today, around eight schools participate, according to a CSU-Pueblo document.

The LEED Lab is an extension of Green Building Council’s organization, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which gives out designations for clean buildings. Spencer-Workman, a LEED Accredited Professional, co-teaches the one-credit lab with construction management professor Daniel Trujillo.

Spencer-Workman and Trujillo started developing the curriculum for the class in December 2013 and it was implemented during the spring 2014 semester. It will be offered again in the spring 2016 semester to all students, including those outside the sustainability minor.

Within the class, students work with LEED accreditation standards for buildings.

When the university was constructing its newest building, the General Classroom Building, two students from the LEED Lab worked with crews to ensure its sustainability.

“One of them worked on the actual material and resource disposal of recycling. So, he made sure the recycling was happening for the construction of this building,” Spencer-Workman said.

Another student worked on the documentation for the LEED building certification process. The building, which is currently going through the approval process, will receive LEED Gold certification, the organization’s second highest clean building ranking.

Experience with the LEED certification process has been in demand at local companies recently and some students have been hired almost immediately.

“What it’s also doing is it’s offering opportunities for the marketplace to come to the campus and look at our students as potential future employees,” Spencer-Workman said.

“So, we had four students out of our last LEED Lab hired directly because of their experience in their class. And those students were hired by a firm to actually do LEED documentation,” she said. “They hadn’t graduated but they were hired.”

Other Colorado local companies have also been working within the sustainability trend.

Spencer-Workman said there are more than 60 cleantech companies in Colorado.

“Here in Pueblo, we have about five or six so there’s quite a number of places students can gravitate towards,” she said, “and I can tell you as part of the minor, we look to develop community partnerships with those companies so that we can bring them in and they can see what our students are doing and our students can learn from them in exchange.”

Vestas has been working with the university. Spencer-Workman said the company regularly looks to hire CSU-Pueblo students.

The minor, in its early stages, has worked to give students a competitive advantage and Spencer-Workman said she thinks that trend will continue.

“Any student who takes the time to do this minor and earn their credits and it will probably catapult themselves 2 to 5 percent higher in the marketplace than their peers in terms of both a success rate as well as kind of an income and pay rate,” she said.

And, as the trend of sustainability has grown, it has made itself applicable to students of all backgrounds.

“What makes the minor so unique is that it’s interdisciplinary. So, any student, any major can be part of this, which is a really great thing and it makes it really valuable I believe,” Spencer-Workman said. “You can do a lot of things with it so it’s really a great place to be right now.”

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