College Students Innovate Their Campus and Local Community

If you want to know what the future will look like, the old adage goes, ask the people who will live it. I’m not so old myself, but I figured to make this even more true, I’d consult some of tomorrow’s leaders—specifically some who are working on the same types of issues we cover at National Geographic.

I kicked off my trip with about 40 students at San Diego State University. I wanted to talk with them about the road trip I’ve just begun, my  tour of California’s hottest and most innovative hubs to check out some solutions for the future. Many of the students worked on campus to help procure cleaner water, more locally-sourced food and energy efficiency. A handful were even part of the university’s fancy new sustainability major, something that wasn’t around in my day.

It turns out that, well, first of all, San Diego is an excellent place to go to college. Bright sun, temps in the low 70s, and ample Frisbee-tossing. But the students at SDSU were also fiercely focused on innovating their community. For years the school’s Green Love student club has pushed to put bike routes around town and to bring car sharing services to the campus. This year, the group is eyeing a grant from the California state Greenovation program to install a new watering system and to create large-scale composting capabilities.

Talking with students about National Geographic's mission, and the future.

Other schools are trying it too. To encourage students to bike instead of drive, the University of Michigan launched a program to help students learn how to repair their own bicycles. Vermont’s Middlebury College is trying to turn cow manure into energy. And the College of the Atlantic in Maine claims to be the first school in the country to be entirely carbon neutral.

Those might be small pursuits or goals that have been around for years, but according to the students today, those types of efforts can go a long way, especially with a younger generation keenly focused on making the future cleaner and more efficient. Just thinking about what college campuses looked like a decade ago makes me wonder what kinds of environmental innovations today’s ten-year-olds will push for when they start wearing college hoodies.

The students also had some good questions about the cost of innovation. Some innovative foods are genetically modified, and social and scientific costs of these are hotly debated. A California ballot measure earlier this month showed the state almost evenly divided on whether to label genetically altered food. Some questioned the ethics of how we burn fossil fuels or treat animals, issues I’m eager to dig into next week. The group’s faculty leader, Glen Brandenburg, told me that innovation doesn’t always have to mean new technology. Sometimes it can signal a return to simplicity.

Speaking of simplicity, hanging around a college campus too long—and one with prime quad weather, no less—left me some nostalgic pangs of senioritis. Time to get back in the car.

Changing Planet