University of Oregon students vying for greenest campus

EUGENE, Ore. — In this national intercollegiate competition, the Ducks are getting stomped by the Huskies — never mind Pistol Pete, Willie the Wildcat and the Wartburg College Squirrel.

In the fierce contest to see which campus can out-green the others, the University of Oregon is 11th out of 28 participating universities, but that won’t be true for long, UO student contest leader Casey Ellingson said.

“I would really like to be a contender. I would like to be top 10,” he said. “We still have a couple more weeks to pull this out.”

The Small Steps Big Wins contest is sponsored by the San Francisco nonprofit sustainability group Net Impact, with financial help from the Alcoa Foundation and Microsoft. The first round of the contest ends in mid-December; another round starts in late January after students return from break and settle into their studies.

Net Impact is dangling “carrots and hooks” in the form of monthly prizes such as $50 gift certificates to REI, or the grand prize: two tickets to Coachella 2013, a music festival in Southern California. The incentives are supposed to spur students to take actions that benefit the environment or social causes.

“Those are things that appeal to an undergrad. REI is, like, something I would want,” said Ellingson, a junior.

“It’s like putting a pot of gold at the end. Suddenly you have a little bit more motivation,” UO senior Garrett Dunlavey said.

The Web-based contest allows students to take small actions for the good of the environment or social causes, and they document their action by immediately posting a photo on Facebook. The website logs and records points.

Students can look up where they stand next to their classmates and where their school stands compared with all the other participating colleges and universities.

“We said, ‘What’s the best way to reach young people these days?’ It’s certainly to meet them where they are, which of course is on line,” Net Impact CEO Liz Maw said. “They love posting pictures on Facebook. That’s a big part of it.”

Net Impact lists an evolving set of suggested actions for the students to choose from, and the number of points that each action will net. It begins easy; participants instantly get five points for registering on the web site and then two points if they “like” the contest’s Facebook page. They can get five points for watching an inspiring Ted Talk video.

They can get 10 points for air drying their clothes, and prior to Nov. 6, they could nab 15 points for voting. They can plan a virtual pass-the-can game on Facebook for five points, and Alcoa will donate $1 to recycling organizations for each student who plays.

“A really popular one has been ride your bike to school,” Ellingson said. “Just about everyone who has been involved has done that.”

The big points — 25 at a time — come from volunteering to, for instance, plant trees or help at a Habitat for Humanity building project or get a journalist interested enough to write a story about the contest.

At the 28 participating campuses, about 1,000 students have noted about 2,000 actions so far, Maw said. The organization’s goal is 35,000 student doing 350,000 actions by the end of May.

That’s not unrealistic, UO students said. “It really is a magnet for people who want to do stuff,” Dunlavey said.

The Net Impact goal is to induce abiding activism in students by getting them past the notion that global problems are so massive as to be unsolvable. The experimental Small Steps Big Wins initiative aims to make it easy — and inviting — to take a few small, tangible steps.

Dunlavey, an environmental sciences and business administration major, said the contest solves a tricky problem.

“One of the most difficult things — once you have a lot of people interested in something — is to have realistic things like this to work on,” he said. “This gives you a direct way to start right off the bat and keep working on something.”

The Net Impact students are exceptionally businesslike. The national Net Impact organization was started 20 years ago by eight MBA students from a handful of Ivy league schools.

“We were founded as an alternative to students — on MBA campuses — who, at the time, just thought about money and how much they could make. Our founders thought there was more to it than that,” Maw said.

The group’s plan is to “mobilize a new generation to use their careers to drive transformational change in the workplace and the world,” she said.

The contest can help participants learn skills such as managing, organizing and motivating other people.

“We know that people start habits really young, so college is a great time to reach young people,” Maw said. “We’re looking to attract not only those students who are already pretty socially and environmentally motivated but also those students who haven’t started to see how good it feels to take social and environmental action.”

Ellingson said the UO group casts a wide net.

“The more people we can reach, the more diversity we can obtain, the better,” he said. “Art students, math students — anybody who hasn’t seen how easy it is to make sustainable choices.”

Besides, sustainable business is where the internships and the post-graduation jobs are, the students said.

“We’re just providing the gateway for people to get into that market,” Ellingson said.

Getting students to participate in Small Steps Big Wins is easy, as long as they’ve already incorporated environmentally friendly habits into their lives, said Patrick Miles, campus contest director at the University of Washington, Tacoma branch.

Miles and his team took an iPad to a Green Drinks session — an event that involves beer and environmental talk — and they signed up 32 new participants, but only a few followed through.

“Students say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to win that, but when it comes down to reporting — and it’s not difficult to do — they don’t take the time. That’s the biggest thing, taking time to report,” he said.

Miles, himself, has 514 points, which makes him, so far, third in the country, tantalizingly close to the Coachella tickets. He hangs his clothes to dry, looks for volunteer opportunities and talks up the Small Steps Big Wins contest with any receptive stranger he encounters.

And then he logs on to check his ranking on the leader board. “I check every day just to see,” he said.

The UO participants like the sense of action.

“A lot of environmental groups on campus, they do great advocacy, but they don’t have great action. Net Impact has been amazing for me to make things work, make things happen,” Ellingson said.

UO senior Ryan Seo, who participated in Net Impact in his native South Korea before coming to study in the United States, said energizing individuals is the way to get things done.

“The most important thing about sustainability is it happens from the bottom. Small changes that small people make actually can change the entire world,” he said.

The national Net Income group has specific goals for its contest: saving 40,000 tons of carbon and logging 1,000 student volunteer hours in communities across the country, Maw said.

The UO will be well positioned in January when the next contest begins and the number of participating campuses double, Maw said.

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