Continued restoration efforts of Stroubles Creek, occupancy sensors and LED lighting upgrades at two residence halls, and a sustainable autoclave at Engel Hall are among the latest student ideas to help Virginia Tech with its sustainability efforts.

These proposals were three of several that received approval through the university’s Green RFP Program in late June — RFP stands for “request for proposal.” In existence since 2010, the Green RFP Program annually gives students the opportunity to support Virginia Tech’s mission to be better stewards of the environment.

Students – with help from faculty members – devise and submit sustainability proposals to the Office of Sustainability, factoring in such things as funding sources, long-term cost savings, and volunteer opportunities. A team of sustainability officials, faculty members, and undergraduate and graduate student representatives then shepherd the proposals through a review process before choosing proposals to go to Virginia Tech’s Climate Action, Sustainability, and Energy (CASE) Committee. That committee ultimately selects approximately 10 to 12 projects each year for implementation.

In the past 10 years, the Office of Sustainability has helped shepherd 133 student proposals through the approval process. During that time, the university has invested more than $2 million to implement these proposals.

“We typically get anywhere from 50 to 60 and sometimes 70 proposals each year,” Nathan King, campus sustainability manager, said. “We’ve now even started partnering with faculty members to where the Green RFP Program is implemented into their class curriculum. … It’s been a very wonderful experience to have several faculty members interested in the program and using that as part of their curriculum. It gives students valuable experience in leadership, in communication, and in project management."

“I would say most of our climate action commitment and sustainability efforts have really been kind of a ground up initiative, with students taking the lead and wanting to see a lot of change. This program is a great way to give students that opportunity to leave their sustainable legacy and actively work toward reducing our carbon footprint and reducing our energy and water usage,” said King.

Projects in the works

The CASE committee selected 10 projects to implemented within the next year in addition to the ones mentioned above:

  • A hydroponics extension system at The Market of Virginia Tech, which offers food assistance to students, for growing plants and herbs
  • A battery recycling program that would add collection bins in many residence halls and most dining halls
  • A chiller plant green wall that provides shading for building thermal comfort and additional pollinator habitat
  • Planting 500 trees between Owens, Dietrick, and Payne halls to increase carbon sequestration and mitigate erosion
  • Installing covered bike racks at Hoge and Newman halls to incentivize bike usage
  • Installing eight-loop bike racks at West Ambler Johnston Hall, Cochrane Hall, New Classroom Building, Campbell Hall, and the Jamerson Athletics Center

Inside the numbers

Savings are estimates provided by students working with faculty and staff.

  • $332,000: Total funding for all 10 projects
  • $30,000: Amount contributed by Coca-Cola through the university’s exclusive beverage agreement with the company with all funds going toward tree planting efforts
  • 200,000: Gallons of water saved by the Engel Hall autoclave
  • 9,000: Kilowatt hours of energy produced by the Engel Hall autoclave
  • 120,000: Kilowatt hours of energy saved by the LED lighting at New Residence Hall and Peddrew-Yates Hall
  • $13,567; Annual savings from the installation of the LED lighting at New Residence Hall and Peddrew-Yates Hall
Volunteers help plant trees along Stroubles Creek during the Big Plant. Virginia Tech photo

More on Stroubles Creek

For those unfamiliar, Stroubles Creek flows underneath the Drillfield and into the Duck Pond before meandering through campus farmland toward the New River.

The stream has been listed as a “benthic macroinvertebrate impaired” waterway by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Benthic macroinvertebrates are aquatic animals without backbones large enough to be seen without a microscope.

Sediment is the main stressor for the stream. Stormwater from the town of Blacksburg and from the campus can carry sediment into the creek.

“Anything that's on a parking lot, anything on most rooftops, is going to make its way to a waterway,” Katelyn Muldoon, a water resources specialist in infrastructure engineering operations, said. 

One of the students’ proposals calls for offsetting many of the environmental impacts on the Stroubles Creek watershed by planting black willow and dogwood seedlings along the creek’s banks. The roots from these trees help to stabilize the creek’s banks and keep more dirt out of the creek.

The proposal calls for planting 1,900 seedlings next spring along the creek’s banks in addition to continuing with education and outreach efforts and with monitoring the stream. Virginia Tech already is working with the town and Montgomery County to implement more than 90 best management practices pertaining to the welfare of the creek.

“We have an erosion and sediment control program within my department,” Muldoon said. “We go out and we inspect active construction sites to make sure that they are following their erosion and sediment control plan – putting up silt fences, having clean entrances to the job site, running a street sweeper to keep all the dirt off the other roads. Things like that are all minimum control measures that we use to make sure that we're keeping our job sites as safe and clean as possible and not discharging off site to Stroubles Creek.”

Volunteers will be used to plant the seedlings. A year ago, a group of volunteers planted 10,000 seedlings as part of a Green RFP proposal. Future information about plantings and stream cleanups can be found on the @vtstormwater Instagram account, the Stroubles Creek Coalition Facebook page, or through Canvas announcements.

An autoclave (to the left) helps sterilize laboratory equipment. Photo by Briana Bittner for Virginia Tech.

What is an autoclave?

In most cases, an autoclave is a machine that uses steam to sterilize laboratory equipment commonly found in medical settings and research labs. Engel Hall serves as the home of the biochemistry department.

A few years ago, a student proposal led to the replacing of an autoclave in Engel Hall. Now, the latest proposal replaces a second one.

“Those autoclaves in that building were about 40 years old, and this helps to replace some aging equipment that’s not very energy or water efficient,” King said. “Certainly, there have been a lot of technological advances that have happened over the last 40 years.

“It has the additional benefit of supporting another program that we run through our office in conjunction with environmental health and safety, which is our Green Labs Certification Program. We would love for all labs on campus to sign up for the green labs program and help make their labs more sustainable through various means. Certainly, helping with some equipment replacements like this that we know will save energy and water is one way to get support through that program.”

Future plans

Those who work in the Office of Sustainability plan to keep the Green RFP Program in place for years to come, but with potential tweaks. They want to increase student engagement even more, which possibly could mean increasing the numbers of students in the proposal review process.

“We want them to really have a little bit more input and say into the projects that they think are important and that meet a lot of the goals of the Climate Action Commitment,” King said. “And they can get that further experience reviewing proposals with our subject matter experts and shepherding proposals through our program to the CASE committee.”

They do, however, still plan to teach students the three foundational blocks of sustainability. These three things represent the core of the university’s sustainability efforts.

“We want to be economically sustainable from that financial perspective,” King said. “But we also, of course, want to be environmentally sustainable as well as socially sustainable. We want to make sure that we are being fair and equitable in these projects and programs and hoping that they will have a maximum impact on our students, faculty, staff, and surrounding community members.”

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