Sierra Club Reveals “Coolest Schools” for 2013

An electric vehicle charging station at UConn.

The grade is out: more than 150 U.S. academic institutions received their green report card today, as part of Sierra Club’s Cool Schools rating of sustainability on U.S. campuses. The results indicate high marks for some of the country’s most popular universities and community colleges.

The Cool Schools program, which is in its seventh year, evaluates higher institutions on their innovative contributions to promoting sustainability, both inside and outside the classroom. Schools were evaluated on everything from the use of ecologically smart architecture to the strategies they used to teach students ways to reduce their carbon footprint in their professions and daily lives. Programs and classes that were geared toward promoting sustainability through course curriculum or community engagement were also given high points. So who were the leaders?

Cool Schools # 1 Ranking: University of Connecticut

University of Connecticut (UConn) received the #1 slot on the Cool Schools rating for its 600-plus classes on sustainable topics, and its success in reducing both water usage and carbon emissions in daily operations. According to Sierra’s survey, 25 percent of the food that UConn serves in its dining halls is either grown on campus or is purchased from distributors within 100 miles of the school. This policy means UConn supports local businesses while reducing its carbon footprint.

UConn is also well known for its focus on LEED-compliant architecture and the university’s development of its own sustainable design guidelines, which it says are meant to “augment LEED as a sustainability benchmark,” rather than to use LEED as an end-goal.

The school also got a nod from the evaluators for its decision to retrofit more than a dozen buildings as part of its effort to reduce carbon emissions, a step that is meant to ensure that its architecture – both old and new – meets the goals of environmental sustainable design.

UConn’s installation of a “green roof” on Laurel Hall was one of several features that led to its Gold LEED certification in 2013.

At the time of UConn’s initial evaluation by the program in 2010, it was ranked 49. By 2012, it had risen to fifth place. For Sierra Club, UConn’s accomplishments demonstrate an important message in Cool Schools’ goals.

“By showing such strong leadership on so many fronts – from energy use and transportation to the courses they offer – the best of these schools are pointing the way for other institutions,” said Sierra Club Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Bob Sipchen.

Sustainable Programs at Dickenson College

Another school that received kudos for its sustainability efforts is Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, which maintains the Center for Sustainability Education, a hub for workshops and classes on environmental stewardship and sustainability. The community college also operates a 50-acre farm that grows organic produce that is divided between the college dining hall, a membership-driven collective of students, faculty and alumni, and the local SHARE program for food banks.

The Top Ten Cool Schools

The top 10 rankings for 2013 are:

  1.  University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT)
  2. Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA)
  3. University of California, Irvine (Irvine, CA)
  4. University of California, Davis (Davis, CA)
  5. Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
  6. Green Mountain College (Poultney, VT)
  7. Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
  8. Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA)
  9. American University (Washington, DC)
  10. University of California, Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)

UC Irvine: Tackling Climate Change Issues

Most of the top 10 are newcomers to the ranks. But UC Irvine’s rise from ninth place to third is not a great surprise; the university has been repeatedly recognized for its proactive approach to education and efforts in climate mitigation and adaptation. It’s a critical goal in any environment, but its necessity has been underscored all the further recently by Southern California’s ongoing drought problems. Although Stanford U, UC Davis and Georgia Institute of Tech were not able to retain their 2012 rankings, they all maintained prominence as top ten sustainable institutions.

More Cool Schools Competing

The good news is that competition for these rankings seems to be building. That means that schools are taking the need for sustainability seriously not just as revenue-earning course material, but as critical benchmarks in their own contributions to environmental stewardship. I can’t wait to see what innovative programs and concepts Cool Schools reveals in 2014.
Images courtesy of University of Connecticut

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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