Student Stories

Undergraduate researchers analyze campus sustainability in Environmental Frontiers

In new initiative, students partner with faculty, Facilities Services to assess the energy usage of buildings on the Hyde Park campus

A new research initiative caught the eye of many different University of Chicago undergraduates this summer. Combining myriad interests and disciplines, nine undergraduates joined the Environmental Frontiers Campus program this summer with the common goal of obtaining a scientific and practical understanding of sustainable urban development through data about their very own campus in Hyde Park. 

Environmental Frontiers is a student-faculty based research initiative from the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation with the goal of educating undergraduates on both the scientific and practical aspects of sustainable urban development. In 2020, the initiative expanded with the establishment of EFCampus to create organized, hands-on research experiences for undergraduates exploring opportunities to make campus greener in partnership with Facilities Services. The first cohort of EFCampus undergraduate research assistants divided into 3 teams to work virtually on specialized projects: laboratory building energy analysis, LEED building performance benchmarking and a water efficiency assessment. 

“I was intrigued by the prospect of learning more about the impact of building energy consumption on the environment and thinking about ways to minimize it,” said fourth-year Lily Mansfield, a physics major and statistics minor who collaborated in the LEED group.  “I have always been passionate about sustainability, and this project was a great opportunity to leverage my technical skills to solve a real-world problem.” 

The first cohort of EFCampus undergraduate research assistants divided into 3 teams to work virtually on specialized projects: laboratory building energy analysis, LEED building performance benchmarking and a water efficiency assessment. 

“There’s so much enthusiasm and energy on the part of students at the College,” observed Diana Petty, the associate director of the Mansueto Institute. “For trying to green the campus, [and] for trying to make local improvements that are more sustainable within our own community in our own home.”

Research for a sustainable future 

One team worked to first understand the energy performance of University LEED buildings as compared to LEED and non-LEED peer buildings, and secondly, produce technical analysis to validate different strategies for improving building energy efficiency. 

They collected and analyzed their data and compared UChicago’s performance with regression analysis. After discovering that LEED certified buildings did not outperform non-LEED certified buildings in energy efficiency, the team drafted recommendations to reduce future energy consumption resulting from building modifications in an 80-page report. 

To third-year mathematics major and statistics minor Jasmina Scekic, the final report, complete with methodology, findings and recommendations, was the most rewarding part of her experience. 

“It was gratifying to hand over a polished report containing attainable recommendations for the University as well as all of the necessary information for students to continue our research in the future.”

Based on their findings, the team hopes to see more focus on green-building practices. A potential next step could be creating a checklist of industry standards for energy efficiency.

Greening campus labs

Another group of undergraduates turned their focus to 10 UChicago campus lab buildings.  As key facilities for the UChicago research community, these are some of the highest energy use buildings on campus. Undergraduate researchers with EFCampus developed benchmarking tools to see how these buildings shaped up compared to labs across the country. 

The team’s analysis verified that targeted lab interventions could achieve significant energy savings, including reducing the minimum ventilation rates according to occupant need and safety, auditing and improving fume hood efficiency, and adjusting the set points of ultra-low temperature freezers to safely store researcher specimens while reducing electricity consumption.

Recent public policy and environmental and urban studies graduate, Kimika Padilla, is confident that her team’s intensive research can aid UChicago’s sustainability efforts.

“Our final report, submitted to the EFCampus team including Facilities Services, presents data and peer case studies to highlight how each of the energy conservation measures we recommend have already been implemented at other major research institutions…. Comparing the efforts on our campus to those happening nationally, there is significant room for improvement as the University of Chicago strives not only to meet its own ambitious greenhouse gas emissions goal, but also to become a leader of campus sustainability in its own right,” she said. 

A community legacy

This research by undergraduates will have a profound and long-lasting impact on the University community. Fourth-year economics major and molecular engineering minor Gillian Gagnard, a member of the team analyzing campus water usage and costs, was proud to leave behind valuable knowledge for the rest of the campus community: 

“My three years here so far have been so wonderful and I have gained many connections, knowledge and experiences. Being able to go forward with the knowledge that I will be able to leave something behind is quite gratifying.”

Her team researched other institutions’ water usage, strategizing how conservation measures could be implemented at UChicago and finally, creating estimates for the water savings and fiscal costs. These findings are key to the environmental health of the Midwest as a region.

“During a time of instability for the whole campus, it was exciting to work on a project that invested in the future of UChicago, and to think about ways to improve life here for everyone,” said third-year economics and environmental and urban studies double major Ruby Rorty, another member of the water team. “In the Midwest, it’s easy to forget that everyday existence is inextricably tied to our watersheds, and projects like this one remind us how important water is to our ecosystems, communities, and institutions,” she said.

The faculty co-leads of the initiative—Elizabeth Moyer, associate professor of geophysical sciences and Sabina Shaikh, senior lecturer and director of the Program on Global Environment—look forward to the future of EFCampus.

“We hope to connect undergraduates to the ground-breaking research the University is known for,” said Shaikh. “EFCampus is unique in that it engages student, faculty and staff in our own campus environment—something we interact with every day but might not normally consider a research topic.  We hope the legacy will be to have continued student and faculty collaborations around research, while enhancing the sustainability and resiliency of the physical campus, neighborhoods and city.”