GREEN YOUR SCHOOL: The Oberlin College Ecolympics

Submitted by dpeacock on August 14, 2014

Oberlin students take "shots" of a locally grown salad at a 2014 Ecolympics event.

Oberlin students take "shots" of a locally grown salad at a 2014 Ecolympics event.

As students get ready to go back to school, some of them are also getting ready to embark upon a new year of greening their campuses. Green America editorial fellow Sari Amiel discovered five inspiring examples of how students are making their campuses more socially just and environmentally sustainable. Every Monday and Wednesday from now through August 27th, we’ll post one of Sari’s stories here on our blog.

At Oberlin College, April brings warm breezes, vibrant flowers, and golden sunlight—as well as a spirited contest that pits one dorm against another to see which can use the fewest resources.  The Oberlin Ecolympics compares dorm-wide reductions in electricity and water use, with the most eco-savvy dorms winning prizes that include ice cream socials and infrastructure improvements, such as the installation of water refill stations.

“Ultimately, becoming sustainable will involve significant lifestyle changes on behalf of pretty much everyone,” says Oberlin Ecolympics Intern Abraham Rowe. “It’s important to have people actually attempt to make some sort of changes to their lifestyle, and then [see] what it feels like to live like that.”

Started in 2002, when several Oberlin students invented a building “dashboard” to monitor their energy and water use, the campus-wide contest takes place over three weeks. The contest is still guided by an online dashboard similar to the 2002 prototype, which monitors buildings and informs residents about their resource use. The contests also uses physical displays to keep the spirit of competition high.

Oberlin’s Office of Environmental Sustainability advertises, plans, and oversees the coordination, planning, and marketing of the campus’s Ecolympics efforts, which also involve educational events. In 2014, Oberlin’s 36 Ecolympics events included movie screenings, a local arboretum cleanup, a visit from animal rights activist Gene Bauer, and a workshop and concert hosted by a band that uses only vegetable oil to power its truck.The Office of Environmental Sustainability incentivized student attendance by rewarding the dorm that had the highest percentage of resident participation at the events.

Sustainability Coordinator Bridget Flynn says that the Ecolympics is an “extremely meaningful” competition, due to its student engagement and its tangible results: In 2014, Oberlin trimmed its electricity use during the event by 13,182 kWh, which saved $1,054, and the campus reduced its overall water use by 55,889 gallons, or $559. Rowe values Ecolympics because, once the contest is over, electricity and water use continue to decrease across campus, he says.

In addition, the competition has infected the city of Oberlin, whose public schools held their first resource reduction in conjunction with Ecolympics in 2014. One public school reduced its electricity use by 36.7 percent, an impressive feat given that only 50 to 60 percent of average US building’s electricity use is discretionary, or under the control of the building’s occupants.

Ecolympics is no longer confined to Oberlin’s borders. The students who first invented the Ecolympics dashboard went on to found the Lucid Design Group, which develops resource-monitoring building software for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike. In 2010, Lucid helped make this contest national. Called the Campus Conservation Nationals competition, it runs every spring at 119 colleges and universities across the country. Oberlin participates each year, and simultaneously continues to run its dorm-wide contest. Last year, the Campus Conservation Nationals judges ranked Oberlin as a “top-five water reducer.”

Both Rowe and Flynn advise schools that are interested in Ecolympics to check out the many resources that Campus Conservation Nationals offers. Environmental Dashboard Project Leader Danny Rosenberg, a 2012 Oberlin graduate, stresses the importance of involving the entire student body in the competition. “Try to tie [the competition] in with a broader effort to engage the college community on sustainability,” says Rosenberg.  “Try to really build a culture around sustainability.”

—Sari Amiel

More from the Blog