EAS Honors Program course reduces CO2

Students in Kim Cobb's class are finding ways to reduce carbon emissions on both a personal and larger scale.

Cobb, an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences assistant professor, instructs the students in her interdisciplinary Honors Program course, Energy, the Environment and Society.

"I've always wanted to teach an energy course here at Tech," she said. "In my line of work, [global warming and climate change] is the 'problem.' It's refreshing to bring these problems into the class."

In the class, the emphasis is placed less on conventional testing, and more on utilizing the knowledge gained in making lifestyle changes through participation and successfully carrying out the course's Carbon Reduction Challenge. Cobb says the class-mostly freshman students-was offered in the spring this year and last year.

Roughly 60 percent of the class is lectures, from energy and public policy experts, who speak from the scientific and climate perspectives to representatives from Georgia Power Co. "We brought in as many stakeholders as possible," Cobb said. "We keep it very discussion-oriented and hands-on. It's not really about acquiring the knowledge in the hopes they will become involved later on; it's about becoming an active participant now."

The semester-long reduction challenge, the major aspect of the class, is a series of lifestyle or institutional changes the students can either effect in themselves or others to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced. For example, becoming a vegetarian can reduce carbon emissions, as the raising and processing of beef cattle greatly contributes to CO2 production. The final project weighs nearly half of the final grade. Students could start with themselves, then try and recruit others to join in the effort and finally tackle an 'institutional level' challenge. In Cobb's words, it was all about 'scaling up.'

"I instructed the class to think of ways to make small, incremental changes-'get the low-hanging fruit,'" she said. "Then they had to think of ways to scale up. I think they would say it was very challenging and rewarding."

While no tests or lengthy papers were required of students, several 'rules of the game' applied. Any changes or impact on the reduction of carbon emissions were required to be accompanied by ample documentation. Any change undertaken, whether on the personal or institutional level, must have accompanied evidence or witnesses. Proof must also be submitted that the reduction in carbon usage would not have happened without the student's intervention. Finally, the change must be quantified using specific sources, such as government agency Web sites, documents and academic literature.

"Everything must be rigorously documented," Cobb said.
She realized early on that students would probably fall into two groups: the 'home run hitters' who would aim for one, large-scale project, and the personal behavior groups, who would attempt incremental changes for themselves and others that would add up. While more challenging to accomplish, if a 'home run' group hit its mark, they could claim an overwhelming win.

Which is exactly what happened. One such group convinced a representative from Facilities to extinguish the lights at Bobby Dodd Stadium for Earth Week. This lone act was calculated to save roughly 35,000 kWh, which translates to preventing 28,500 kg of CO2 and saving roughly $2,000. Overall, Cobb says, reductions from the entire class equaled nearly 100 metric tons of CO2. (The average American is responsible for 20 pounds of CO2 emissions per day.)

Other projects included an aluminum can recycling program for the Greek organizations, an anti-idling campaign presented to campus shuttle drivers and a commitment from the library to turn off certain computers over the weekend and ensure the rest are set for sleep mode while not in use.

The winners of the reduction contest travel with Cobb to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with staffers from the offices of U.S. senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, Georgia congressmen David Scott, John Lewis and Hank Johnson, and Sen. Richard Shelby, a ranking member with the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Cobb will also present her paleoclimate research-taken from Borneo and the tropical Pacific atolls-during the D.C. visit.

To jumpstart the course, Cobb took on her own challenges. She convinced Mike Edwards, director of the Campus Recreation Center, to lower the thermostat by two degrees from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m.

Cobb, whose research includes examining coral reefs in the tropical Pacific to study climate change during the last 1,000 years, plans to continue the course-along with some additional aspects. "I hope to offer some kind of prize in future courses, as well as build attendance by advertising the course a little more."

All in all, she said it was a definite learning experience for all involved. "I learned a lot from my students. The challenge helped get something done, and I hope that next year we can beat this semester's reductions."