By S. Bruce Kohrn, Walter Simpson, Julie Barrett-O'Neill and
Joseph A. Gardella, Jr.
In 1995, undergraduate students at the State University of New
York at Buffalo (UB) initiated an audit of campus practices and
policies, an exemplary effort that developed into an internship-style
audit course. Since 1997, students have conducted environmental
audits of various public buildings, including the Buffalo Museum
of Science, Buffalo City Hall and two local high schools, as a
public service-learning experience. Students who are motivated
to evaluate the practices and policies of these various buildings
and institutions learn more in one or two semesters about sustainability
than in any other class. In that time they see for themselves
in concrete terms what have mostly been abstract concepts about
global warming, pollution, energy efficiency, etc. and the connections
to politics, economics and the bottom line. At the same time,
they learn how to take a project from start to finish, how to
organize their work, how to work together in teams and how to
work with people other than students and faculty.
Student-driven environmental audits have been conducted on campuses
across North America since 1990. The model of the campus environmental
audit is based upon the master's thesis project, In Our Backyard:
Environmental Issues at UCLA, Proposals for Change and the Institution's
Potential as a Model (Smith, 1990), the first comprehensive examination
of the environmental quality of a college campus. This type of
audit attempts to document how a university influences the health
of the natural environment through its physical operations, educational
policies and research activities.
The campus environmental audit serves several important functions.
First, when developed as a component of an environmental education
program, the project provides a hands-on learning experience wherein
the campus itself, as a set of physical systems and as a human
community, becomes a "learning lab" (Simpson, 1996;
see also Eagan and Orr, 1992). Second, the product of the exercise
serves as an important benchmark for evaluating the ecological
sustainability of university operational, educational and research
initiatives. The audit process and its product - an audit report
- challenge an institution to become an environmentally responsible
citizen by minimizing its physical impact on local systems. The
report also articulates how colleges and universities may cultivate
environmental literacy. Finally, the report acknowledges the unique
obligation educational institutions have to develop scientific
research on ecological phenomena and to develop solutions for
living within ecological constraints.
In 1995, twenty environmental studies students at UB themselves
took the initiative to conduct a comprehensive environmental audit
of the University's activities. Their 24,000 word report had four
focus areas: resource use and infrastructure planning, solid and
hazardous waste management, educational and administrative efforts,
and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the University's Environmental
The success of the campus audit led to efforts to provide new
groups of students with a similar experience. While it was understood
that there was more to do on campus and that some issues should
be revisited regularly, it was also understood that there was
much to do off campus to promote ecological sustainability. During
the spring 1997 semester 14 UB undergraduate environmental studies
students conducted an environmental audit of Buffalo City Hall,
an imposing 32 story Art Deco structure built recently placed
on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Because of its
high public visibility, Buffalo City Hall was an appropriate site
for this public service pilot project. Assisted by local environmental
professionals, the students evaluated the building's solid waste
stream; existing recycling program; purchasing and procurement
policies; and energy consumption, usage, procurement and conservation
programs. Auditing this building and its offices and operations
presented a unique set of political, practical and physical challenges
that played out over the next months. The lessons learned from
these aspects of the audit process can be considered nearly as
important as the results of the audit itself, and certainly provide
an important case study in the development of student internship-based
public service in environmental management or sustainable development
TEACHING THE ENVIRONMENTAL AUDIT COURSE
The environmental audit is now offered as a one semester, three-credit
course in the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Program where
UB's Environmental Studies Program is housed. It is open to juniors
and seniors of all majors, but a typical class is comprised of
environmental studies and environmental design (architecture)
majors. The course syllabus explains that students need to work
together in teams and be self-starting. Unlike most courses, the
syllabus, by design, does not provide weekly assignments for the
students to complete. A step-by-step approach to conducting an
environmental audit is not provided. The students need to figure
out for themselves what to assess, what data they needed to collect,
how to collect and evaluate the data, and how to report their
findings. This approach, the syllabus explains, is not unlike
the working world. The unstructured nature of the course is a
challenge for the students, and, predictably, at the end of the
course, the students have mixed reactions. Most are positive about
the experience; a few feel that more guidance is necessary and
suggest a manual be provided. There have been many lessons about
teaching the course, and there are many issues to be considered
when students conduct an environmental audit, some of which are
AN AUDIT IS COMPOSED OF MANY TASKS
An environmental audit project involves much more than collecting
data. The tasks include: identifying a client organization and
negotiating the ground rules for the audit, recruiting students
and arranging appropriate academic credit, planning the audit,
providing technical training, gathering information and conducting
the audit, analyzing data and drawing conclusions, writing and
editing the report, presenting the report, and following through
to ensure implementation of recommendations.
Some of these tasks are preparatory to the actual audit, and
are best accomplished by faculty or advisors who are supervising
the audit. Other tasks, i.e., planning, information gathering,
analyzing data, writing and presenting, belong to the students.
Of course, it is beneficial if students are also involved in other
facets, especially the follow through and implementation of their
As a rule of thumb, assume the entire audit process will take
at least twice as long as anticipated. In the UB experience, this
means the audit is a project that will take two 16-week semesters,
yet most students do not have two semesters to commit to the project.
Recruiting a second group of students to complete the audit may
result in a loss of continuity for the project, a lack of closure
for the first group of students, and a lack of ownership in the
project for the second group. Thus far, one or two students have
been willing to continue work the next semester or during the
summer. Alternative approaches which allow the course to be taught
in one semester have not been successful, and we are now examining
the possibility of conducting the audit as a two-semester, capstone
course for honors students.
The student portion of the audit cannot be rushed if the goal
is to produce a positive learning experience for the students
and a professional, helpful audit for the "client."
In general, one semester is required to train students, gather
and analyze data, make recommendations and draft the report. A
second semester is needed to edit and finalize the report, present
it and seek to implement its recommendations. It is a surprise
to most students, but most of the learning goes on in the second
semester after the data is gathered and the editing begins.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS BY KICKING IT OFF RIGHT
In our experience, an environmental audit of a college or university
campus can be initiated without much fanfare or official approval.
Campus communities tend to be decentralized, open, permissive
forums where "anything goes" and student projects are
tolerated if not embraced. Community institutions or political
entities, like Buffalo City Hall, are different. They are often
closed organizations. Conducting an effective audit of an off-campus
entity requires an invitation, as well as top-level approval and
Obtaining support from the client organization's leadership is
one thing but communicating it to members of the organization
is another. To maximize the likelihood that the organization's
staff will cooperate with student auditors, it is essential that
top-level support be communicated right from the start - personally
and via written documents. Even so, students must be prepared
to encounter roadblocks and resistance. Overcoming them is part
of the learning experience.
As a practical matter, the scope of the environmental audit must
be limited, and should be subject to negotiation with the "client"
organization. In most cases, students will not have enough time
to investigate all environmental impacts associated with a client
organization, nor will they possess or have access to the technical
skills necessary to tackle some issues. Taking on too much may
lead to frustration and sloppy work, thus undermining the whole
Another scope issue pertains to how the audit defines "environmental."
Does it include human environmental health and safety issues (e.g.,
indoor air quality, ventilation rates, employee exposure to chemicals,
etc.) or will the audit focus entirely on the client facility's
impact on the natural environment? UB audits thus far have had
the latter focus, because health and safety issues are generally
already addressed by a health and safety officer at each facility
and may raise liability concerns.
SUPERVISION AND BUDGET
One might hope that an environmental audit could be conducted
without a budget and funding. But as a practical matter, good
will and good intentions may only go so far! If the project is
to be sustainable, replicated and expanded over a course of years,
as we hope to do in Buffalo, a funding source is needed. Primary
costs include travel and reimbursable expenses for students and
project supervision costs. A self-sustaining, long-term project
is unlikely if all supervision is by volunteer faculty and staff
who must find time above and beyond their normal responsibilities
to participate in the audit process and to work with the students.
PRODUCT VS. PROCESS
There is a tension between turning out a highly polished professional
document (most likely to produce the desired environmental changes
in the client's facility), and "letting the students do it
themselves." It's important to strike the right balance.
Most students are not experienced enough to conduct the technical
aspects of the audit or to direct and manage the project by themselves.
In addition, writing and editing may not be student strong points.
In the UB experience, students need outside help and guidance
from faculty advisors or from other technical resource persons.
But ultimately the students must have a sense of ownership of
and responsibility for the project. This may somewhat compromise
the quality of the final document but, as an educational activity,
the first priority should be the learning experience.
It is important to keep in mind that the students' learning experiences
are about more than acquiring procedural knowledge of an audit
or about how various human practices impact the environment. Participation
in an audit also teaches students about themselves, about working
together and about working in their communities to undertake real
projects. It's an exercise in personal empowerment.
Faculty supervisors must be careful not to rob the students of
all these intangible outcomes by being too intrusive. On the other
hand, the experience can be negative if student leadership does
not emerge and the students are allowed to flounder too long.
The instructors must strive for the right balance between teacher
guidance and student initiative.
THE STUDENT LEARNING EXPERIENCE
When the first environmental audit class concluded, all the students
who worked on it remarked that the experience was very positive.
A majority stated in unequivocal, enthusiastic terms that this
was the "best course" they had taken in their four years
at the University! What did they learn?
An environmental audit is, by its nature, a hands-on experience.
It involves leaving the classroom and getting out into the community
(campus community or wider community, depending on the focus of
the audit) and working cooperatively with other students and non-students
too. The process itself is instructive. Moreover, the task refocuses
the educational experience; the campus or a community institution
becomes a learning lab.
Thus, students learn about themselves, i.e., how to plan, execute
and work together, and how to be creative and inventive about
obtaining data, defining issues and finding solutions. Students
learn to view their immediate surroundings as the subject of study.
If the process works, they also learn about how to re-energize
learning with excitement, vigor and self-direction.
Of course, conducting an environmental audit also teaches students
about environmental impacts and how to measure them. The students
learn about the environmental impacts of local buildings, and
have an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned
in their previous courses. Students learn how concepts of ecological
sustainability play out in the "real" world by seeing
just how much paper, energy and resources a major office building
consumes daily and how much garbage and carbon dioxide it produces.
Additionally, in the real world context, the students must grapple
with questions such as: how do we obtain the data we need in a
politicized arena like City Hall? What recommendations will really
work given the real life constraints we have encountered? What
do we need to do to make something happen?
Implementing the audit's recommendations or "making something
happen" is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the audit.
And how to make something happen is hopefully what students learn
by taking part in an audit project. Thus, conducting an environmental
audit contributes to ecological sustainability by creating an
experience through which students teach themselves that they can
change the world. A successful experience will also provide students
with the motivation and confidence to actually do so.
Eagan, David and David Orr, Eds., 1992. The Campus and Environmental
Responsibility. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
Keniry, Julian, 1995. Ecodemia: Campus Environmental Stewardship
at the Turn of the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Wildlife
Simpson, Walter, 1996. "Environmental Stewardship and the
Green Campus," Facilities Manager, p. 39 - 45, January. Smith,
April, 1989. In Our Backyard: Environmental Issues at UCLA, Proposals
for Change and the Institution's Potential as a Model. MA thesis
project, Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. University
of California at Los Angeles.
S. Bruce Kohrn is an adjunct lecturer in Environmental Studies
at UB. He is also founder and President of SBK Environmental Research,
Inc., an independent environmental consulting firm based in Buffalo
and specializing in community-based research. He can be reached
Joe Gardella is professor of Chemistry at UB, the past chair
of the UB Environmental Task Force, and Associate Dean for External
Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Walter Simpson is the UB Energy Officer. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Barrett O'Neill, currently
a law student, was an undergraduate in Environmental Studies at
UB. She led a team of 26 students who performed the school's first
A longer version of this article can be found at www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~kohrn.
A reduced version will appear in D. Tillbury, R. Stevenson, J.
Fien and D. Schreuder (eds.) (forthcoming), Education and Sustainable
Development: Responding to the Global Challenge. New York: Garland.
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