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Lights Out! Students’ Energy-Saving Idea Wins CO2 Challenge

‘Green Dream Dorms’ Tops the Field at Rist Institute Competition

Three students hold award certificates while talking to two faculty members on a staircase Photo by Ed Brennen
Senior environmental science majors, second from left, Isabella Giesing, Stefanie Sganga and Marileidy Tejeda discuss their 'Green Dream Dorms' project with Provost Joseph Hartman, left, and Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga after winning the third annual Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy Climate Mitigation Challenge.

02/25/2022
By Ed Brennen

An initiative to get students thinking about their energy use in residence halls — and develop lifelong energy-saving habits along the way — won the third annual Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy Climate Mitigation Challenge.

The “Green Dream Dorms” team of senior environmental science majors Isabella Giesing, Stefanie Sganga and Marileidy Tejeda presented their winning project at a recent award ceremony at University Crossing, where three other finalists also shared their ideas.

Open to students of all majors, the challenge prompts teams to think of unique and innovative ways to reduce the university community’s emissions by 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) within 10 weeks.

“Having a 10-week goal made us think about what’s feasible — what can we do tomorrow if it was actually implemented,” says Tejeda, a Boston resident whose team came up with a three-pronged strategy that it projected would reduce CO2 emissions from UML’s residence halls by more than 120,000 pounds in 70 days.

The team proposed equipping each room with an energy monitor that connects to a central kiosk in each residence hall, where students can see how their usage compares to others in their building (similar to how utility companies like National Grid mail customers energy reports showing how they compare to neighbors). 

To encourage students to unplug phone chargers when not in use and turn off lights when leaving their rooms, the team proposed competitions within buildings based on the energy use data, with resident advisors awarding monthly prizes such as River Hawk Shop gift cards.

“We wanted to have a community aspect with fun competitions — something students could engage with while learning as well,” says Sganga, a Burlington, Massachusetts, native who developed the project last semester in her “Climate Change: Science, Communication, Solutions” course led by Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga.
A student gestures with her hands while making a presentation with two other students at a podium Photo by Ed Brennen
Senior business major Sophia Governo, center, gestures while presenting team's 'Industrial Revolution to Green Revolution' project with teammates Madison Sachs, left, and Sabrina Lehman.

Giesing says that when students don’t have to worry about paying the electric bill in their residence hall, it’s easy for them to neglect doing little things like turning off lights.

“When you live on your own, you’re shutting off lights and turning the heat down; you’re more conscientious about your actions,” the Bradford, Vermont, native says. “This is a chance to promote those lifelong habits.”

The team, which received a first-place price of $750, also proposed updating Residence Life guidelines to be more energy-conscious and implementing a rental program for more energy-efficient MicroFridges — while capping their use to one per room.

In presenting the awards, Provost Joseph Hartman noted that many of the university’s energy-saving efforts, such as replacing boilers, go unnoticed by students.

“I love how everybody is part of the (Green Dream Dorms) solution, how you can get students to buy in and make it happen,” says Hartman, who praised all the finalists for their “thought, creativity and wide range of really cool ideas.”

The team of Michael Burke, Quinn Caffrey, Matias Ghazi and Christopher McCauliff earned a second-place prize of $450 for their “Lowell Community Cool” project. They proposed replacing the existing steam-powered heating and cooling systems on South Campus with a more efficient “GeoMicro System,” which involves a series of boreholes and pipes that would store water at a desired temperature and reduce CO2 emissions by more than 400,000 pounds in 10 weeks.
A student in a suit jacket and tie makes a presentation with another student who is wearing glasses Photo by Ed Brennen
'Pricing for Climate Justice' teammates Alexis McKenzie and Joshua Vollmar present their idea for reducing CO2 emissions by 10,000 pounds in 10 weeks.

Two teams tied for third and received $225 each.

The “Pricing for Climate Justice” team of Joshua Vollmar, Salvatore Fusco and Alexis McKenzie proposed a carbon tax on high-emitting buildings in Lowell, with revenue going to fund energy-efficiency projects for homeowners who demonstrate financial need.  

And the “Industrial Revolution to Green Revolution” team of Sophia Governo, Sabrina Lehman and Madison Sachs showed how installing green roofs on North and East campuses would help keep buildings cool and reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 80,000 pounds in 10 weeks — with the added benefit of improving students’ mental health by providing them with more green space. 

An initial field of a dozen projects was judged by faculty and staff members from the Rist Institute and Climate Change Initiative, which is directed by Rooney-Varga.

“The 10,000-pound goal is nice because it’s a number that can’t be achieved alone; they really have to think about more systemic solutions,” says Rooney-Varga, who adds that student engagement is critical for the university to achieve its climate neutrality goals.

“The students who are really aware of these problems often feel so alone with them,” she says. “Knowing they’re part of a community that’s addressing this together makes them feel better.”

Rist Institute Executive Director Ruairi O’Mahony encouraged all of the teams to continue pursuing their projects through the Sustainability, Engagement and Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund and the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute.