Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy Recognizes Students’ Climate Mitigation Ideas

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga pose with the student project winners Image by Ed Brennen
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, right, and Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, left, present students, from left, Lena Dziechowski, Megha Sudheendra and Brittany Segill with their RISE Student Innovation Award certificates at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

The challenge to students in Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga’s course on climate change was to come up with ways to reduce the university community’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 10,000 pounds over the span of 10 weeks.

The student team of Lena Dziechowski, Megha Sudheendra and Brittany Segill came up with a way to reduce five times those emissions in half the time.

By getting just one-quarter of UML students to give up eating meat one day a month, the students calculated that their “Meatless Monday” project would save 51,141 pounds of CO2 emissions per month – and 618,492 pounds per year.

The project took home the top prize at the inaugural Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE) Student Innovation Awards, held recently at University Crossing.

“This is a really simple idea that could make a huge impact in a very short amount of time, with minimal cost,” says Dziechowski, a graduate student in atmospheric science from Atkinson, N.H.

Launched last fall, RISE unites the university’s research centers and campus initiatives in the areas of sustainability, climate change and energy. The institute is led by Rooney-Varga, Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony and Mechanical Engineering Prof. Chris Niezrecki, director of the Center for Wind Energy.

Student Lily Green talks about her Carbon Consumers project Image by Ed Brennen
Senior chemistry major Lily Green talks about her group's project, Carbon Consumers, at the RISE Student Innovation Awards ceremony at Moloney Hall.

The institute, along with the university’s Rist Urban Agriculture Greenhouse, is named for Kim and Brian Rist ’77, who last year made the largest single donation – $5 million – to UMass Lowell in its history. A $1 million share of that gift will fund RISE and create an endowment for its future operations.

“Students are quicker than ever to understand the science of climate change,” says Rooney-Varga, who is also director of the Climate Change Initiative. “We need to do the research, education and communication that can move society toward science-based climate action. These awards represent the best possible outcome of that work.”

At the awards ceremony, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney congratulated students on showing the “dedication, know-how and courage” to address climate change – an issue the university is committed to addressing.

“I am so proud of you and the work that you’re doing,” Moloney said. “I know that you will take what you learned from these projects and continue to make a difference in the world.”

Twelve teams competed in the “Climate Mitigation Challenge,” which was the term project in Rooney-Varga’s “Climate Change: Science, Communication and Solutions” course. The top three teams (made up of eight students) each received a share of $1,000 in prize money from RISE. Next year, the contest will be open to all UML students.

Juliette Rooney-Varga shakes hands with student Brittany Segill Image by Ed Brennen
RISE co-director Juliette Rooney-Varga shakes hands with junior environmental science major Brittany Segill after her team took first at the RISE Student Innovation Awards.

“Students were learning about some pretty tough stuff – there’s a lot of gloom and doom sometimes with climate change,” Rooney-Varga says. “So this is a good way for them to realize that, ‘You know what? Reducing 10,000 pounds is not as hard as it seems.’ It’s like the easiest diet you ever went on.”

One gallon of gasoline emits about 20 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, so 10,000 pounds of CO2 emissions is produced from 500 gallons of gasoline.

“Connectivity,” a project that proposed a dedicated bicycle lane on Fletcher Street to connect the UML campus to Lowell’s commuter rail stop, Gallagher Terminal, was runner-up. “Carbon Consumers,” a project that proposed adding labels that show the carbon impact of the food served on campus (similar to nutritional labels) took third.

“As students, we care about those impacts and we want to make a change, but we often don’t know how to do it,” says Carbon Consumers team member Lily Green, a senior from Brockton who is majoring in chemistry with a minor in climate change and sustainability. “We came up with a project to close that loop.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounts for 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, a majority of that coming from livestock production.

Jovan Bryan discusses his team's Connectivity project Image by Ed Brennen
Connectivity team member Jovan Bryan shares their idea for creating a dedicated bike lane between the UML campus and Lowell's MBTA commuter rail station.

Sudheendra, a senior environmental science major from Worcester, and Segill, a junior environmental science major from Stoughton, are both vegetarian, while Dziechowski is vegan. They know it’s not easy to convince people to give up eating meat.

“A lot of this is communicating and gaining trust of students, who want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth (in dining halls) and nutritional value,” Sudheendra says.

“I was impressed with how receptive students were to the idea,” adds Dziechowski, who earned her bachelor’s degree in meteorology and atmospheric sciences last spring. “There can be a lot of stigma involved, but people told us, ‘One Monday a month? I can do that to help the university meet the goal.’ It makes you feel good to hear that.”

All of the students were encouraged to continue developing their projects and submit them for future funding – either through the university’s Sustainability, Engagement and Enrichment Development (SEED) Fund or the newly created Lowell Green Community Partnership.

O’Mahony, who advised Rooney-Varga’s students on their projects at the beginning of the semester, looks forward to seeing where they go from here.

“It’s so inspiring to see how the projects have developed and come to fruition,” he says. “Hopefully, they can take their idea and bring them to the next level through the support structures in place at the university.”