Initial Publication Date: July 10, 2020

Western Kentucky University's Unconventional Approach to an Office of Sustainability

CATHERINE WALTERS (, Graduate Assistant, Office of Sustainability, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY. LESLIE A. NORTH (leslie.north@wku. edu), Associate Professor and Director of Sustainability, Office of Sustainability, Department of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY.

The purpose of the Western Kentucky University's (WKU) Office of Sustainability is to assist in decision-making and provide sustainability resources to the campus community, enable students to engage in environmental projects, and educate students, faculty, and staff on sustainability initiatives undertaken by the university. In contrast to sustainability offices which traditionally report to the facilities division of their university, in Academic Year 2019, the WKU Office of Sustainability became a part of the WKU Student Affairs Division, specifically the Division of Enrollment and Student Experience. This reporting structure allows it to spend time not only helping to facilitate sustainability programs on campus, but also building stronger connections to academic and student affairs units across the campus.

Traditionally, sustainability offices on college campuses are located within administrative buildings. In contrast, WKU's Office of Sustainability is situated in a traditional home on the main university campus. This location provides students a space to collaborate on environmental projects and engage in research while instilling a sense of place for many individuals on campus. Further, the utilization of the space as a best-practice demonstration home offers unique and beneficial opportunities for environmental education by displaying to visitors how sustainability may be integrated in their personal lives.

Sustainable elements are found throughout the Office of Sustainability home, including blown cellulose insulation, energy-efficient windows and appliances, a smart thermostat, and locally sourced furniture. A 17-panel rooftop solar array allows the building to be net-zero. The office houses a food pantry, as well as a traditional community vegetable garden and a sensory herb garden. The house also serves as office space for the WKU Chapter of Food Recovery Network, a student organization responsible for diverting food waste from the landfill by collecting end-of-day food items from dining facilities on campus and distributing those to food banks in the community.

The WKU Office of Sustainability serves as a hub for environmental education opportunities. The office has been a resource for many graduate theses, honors theses, and independent projects. In the 2019-2020 academic year, seven students worked on individual projects/theses on topics related to university carbon footprint calculations, sustainable architecture, environmental education and communication, food sustainability, and water resource management. The focus of the office on student activities and development rather than facilities management allows for scholarship funding to help support student research endeavors.

Recent renovations in the office allowed for the development of space to host student organizations and participate in group learning. The Sustainability Innovation Studio space is outfitted with multiple glass whiteboards and intentionally includes rolling furniture which can be reconfigured to meet any particular group's brainstorming needs. The room can also be set up in traditional classroom design, with desks and chairs facing a lecture board. Since student groups often have pockets of time in which to work on projects, a multi-cube bookcase is also available in the studio, so student groups store their progress at the Office of Sustainability and begin work again at another time.

The Office of Sustainability offers campus green tours on the sustainable features of WKU. Tours explain the university's sustainability anecdotes, such as the transition from fluorescent lighting to LEDs. Students have the opportunity to go "behind the scenes" as they enter WKU's heating plant to view decommissioned coal boilers and learn about the transition from coal to natural gas on campus. Students have noted how memories of these experiences remain with them and provide motivation to return and volunteer with the office. To make the WKU Green Tour accessible to individuals off-campus, including area grade schools, a GIS Story Map of the tour was created by a student. Green tours cover a breadth of environmental related topics with guided "thought-questions" in both the in-person guided and virtual tours. The Green Tour is now regularly utilized as an active learning tool in the Introduction to Environmental Science courses taught at WKU.

Situated in a traditional home on the main campus, the office provides students a comfortable space to collaborate on environmental projects. The Green Tours it organizes take students "behind the scenes" to places like the campus heating plant, where they can view decommissioned coal boilers and learn about the transition to natural gas. [Photos here courtesy of WKU Office of Sustainability]




The Office of Sustainability Garden Commons is an opportunity for students to explore sustainable agriculture and their stake in the food system through experiential learning. The office implements innovative growing methods, demonstrating to students the importance of sustainable gardening practices, as well as the benefits of local agriculture. Students oversee two community gardens, one located on-site and one as a partnership with the WKU College Heights Foundation. Each serves a unique function on campus, the first demonstrating fruit and vegetable growing techniques and the second sensory plants and herbs. The office's agriculture student educator provides peer-to-peer education to students, many of whom enter the gardens with little to no experience. The space offers informal and engaging exposure to agriculture in an urban setting.

The previous kitchen area of the Office of Sustainability demonstration home was remodeled to better accommodate a food pantry in an attempt to lessen the burden of food insecurity on the campus community. The office's administration of the food pantry has improved student understanding of the role of social equity in sustainability. Engaging campus partners through food drives and volunteer opportunities has brought awareness to the prevalence of hunger on campus and the challenges individuals face. The pantry is entirely donationbased and is stocked in large part by student organizations. Produce grown in the Garden Commons also helps to supply fresh food options within the pantry. In the fall 2019 semester, over 60 WKU campus community members utilized the service. 

In closing, the WKU Office of Sustainability is an educational resource that provides a space for small group learning and collaboration. Its location in a traditional single-family home building offers an opportunity for unique, yet essential, volunteer opportunities and fundamental services that improve the well-being of students and staff. Through improved environmental educational resources and connections across campus made possible only through its incorporation as part of the Division of Enrollment and Student Experience, the office continues to spark innovation and bridge the gap between sustainability and the campus community. 

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A food pantry in the office addresses food insecurity on the campus.

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