Students showcase research in first sustainability symposium

Students from all disciplines were encouraged to showcase their sustainability research.

The Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota hosted its first Student Sustainability Symposium on Wednesday, where 40 students from eight different colleges showcased their sustainability research.

The student who presented the best research abstract was awarded an iPad. The challenge was open to undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

The students at the symposium, who came from different colleges and majors, all shared the common interest of wanting to tackle challenges facing sustainability efforts.

“There was a really loose criterion on who can participate because we wanted it to be all inclusive and wanted a great turnout since it’s a new event,” said Jennifer Schmitt, a post-doctorate research fellow in the IonE.

The event was funded by a $2,500 mini-grant from the IonE and organized by staff and faculty from the institute.

“When my colleague Beth and I first put this idea for the event together, we thought it would be a great way to put students of all disciplines who are interested in sustainability together in the same room,” said Schmitt.

Students displayed their research findings on 36 by 42 inch poster boards and were on hand to answer questions from attendees.

Leo Raudys, a senior director of environmental affairs for Best Buy and University alum, was the keynote speaker. He emphasized the importance of different perspectives and ideas around sustainability.

“Twenty years ago, if you would have had an event like this it would have been all biologists and engineers so it’s great to see students from all majors here,” he said.

Alice Yonke, a junior architecture major and sustainability studies minor at the University, took top honors with her research on food sustainability on campus.

Yonke surveyed to students to find where they got their food and which part of the food system was most important to them.

She found that students were concerned with the environmental impact of their food system and wanted to know what caused the impact.

“A lot of students addressed that availability of sustainable foods on campus was a concern for them and a lot of them would like something to be done about that,” she said.

Susan D’Mello, graduate student in the industrial organizational psychology program, looked at whether or not greener companies have better financial performances then their not-so-green counterparts.

She looked at all of the Fortune 500 companies from 2009 and compared it to Newsweek’s list of the top 500 green companies. She observed their sustainability reports to “capture the different pro-environmental behaviors they were engaging in.”

D’Mello then coded more than 600 different pro-environmental behaviors.

“We found that on average the Fortune 500 companies tended to report about 11 environmentally-friendly behaviors each and Newsweek reported 12 so we were pretty accurate,” said D’Mello.

D’Mello also examined the link between green performance and financial performance for the companies and found a correlation.

“We can’t say which causes which, but there is a correlation. It could just be that they’re doing well financially that they have more resources to give to sustainability efforts. It could mean that they’re just doing better financially because of their sustainability efforts,” she said.

D’Mello said she hopes to publish her findings and help companies realize that there are benefits to going green like higher financial performance.