by Vaughn Crichlow M’09
Back in the 1970s, Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog Muppet sang “It’s not easy being green” as a way of saying how hard it is to be unique.
Today, that song has a new meaning—the dedication it takes for an institution such as Rowan to instill in students a greater concern for the environment through its academic programs. And the University’s commitment to doing so is evident.
Over the last decade, for example, biology and engineering faculty and students have been seeking alternative fuels—such as ethanol—that would decrease U.S. reliance on imported energy sources. They are working on processes to breed strains of E. coli bacteria that will produce a high volume of ethanol quickly and will resist toxins released during fermentation.
The process taps latent sugars in waste products such as cornstalks, grass clippings, leaves—even old paper—to produce the same grade of fuel now made with more expensive materials. These materials would ordinarily end up in landfills or be plowed under. The energy potential in this waste could be virtually limitless—and could be tapped soon.
“A recent study estimated that 1.3 billion tons of cellulosic biomass could be harvested every year,” said Brian Lefebvre, professor of chemical engineering, “At 70 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass, that would result in 91 billion gallons of ethanol. The U.S. currently uses about 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year, so 90 billion gallons of ethanol would make a big dent in our gasoline production needs.”
The “green learning” approach is also evident in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, where students can earn an undergraduate degree in environmental studies. The degree—which seeks to produce the environmental experts needed in many sectors—uses an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary approach.
For example, biology has joined engineering to assess water quality and human impact on the Mantua Creek watershed. Sociology and geography faculty are assessing smart growth and the impact of urban sprawl––the ongoing unplanned extension of a city’s outlying areas into the countryside. Sociology faculty and students are also working at a site in Louisiana helping to rebuild the landscape in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Environmental studies professor Patrick Crumrine said that he has met many students who are passionate about the environment. “Many of them are majoring in our new environmental studies program,” he said, “and have taken the core courses I teach in the major.”
He has also taught enthusiastic non-biology majors in the introductory course. “Students recognize that environmental quality has an impact on their daily lives,” he said, “and I try to stress these impacts.”
Another initiative in the College of Engineering involves faculty and students working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on a project that may lead to less air pollution in the state. The research involves the use of biodiesel in Newark Airport’s ground support equipment, in home heating systems and locomotive engines.
Supported by a $149,000 NJDEP grant and in conjunction with New Jersey Transit, the project measures emissions from two diesel locomotives operating on eight different fuel blends, including four based on a 20 percent biodiesel. The research aims to determine whether the transportation agency can operate its fleet on the blends without sacrificing reliability and fuel efficiency.
“The goal is to accurately quantify the effects of biodiesel—which is made from vegetable oils or animal fats—on exhaust emissions from diesels in New Jersey Transit’s locomotive fleet,” said engineering professor Krishan Bhatia.
Bhatia and colleague Robert Hesketh said that if this project generates positive results and if New Jersey Transit uses a 20 percent biodiesel blend, it could lead to potential environmental and health benefits including an overall reduction in greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, reduced exposure of New Jersey residents and the environment to the adverse effects of diesel emissions.
New teaching, new thinking
Rowan’s venerable College of Education values new approaches to educating its aspiring teachers. Professor Issam Abi-El-Mona, who has international experience in environmental education, helps his students focus on content and process defined by the New Jersey Department of Education’s core curriculum content standards for science. He encourages aspiring science teachers to include environmental projects in their unit plans.
And while philosophy may seem esoteric, its practicality couldn’t be more applicable than in the case of environmental ethics. Professor David Clowney teaches the ethics course and believes that everyone should learn about environmental problems. To motivate his students, he says, “Examine the world as it is and consider the kind of world you want to leave for your children and grandchildren.”
Clowney teaches that all the world’s problems are inextricably linked and if the world actively seeks solutions to environmental problems, “it will help to ease other pressing needs and deficiencies.”
Hard questions and hard work follow, but Clowney also believes that going green is not an unpleasant enterprise. “While the changes we must make are quite radical,” he said. “I don’t think they have to mean a horrible, mean-spirited and impoverished life.”
A greener palette
Without sacrificing creativity, the Rowan’s artist have gotten greener, too. The art department houses a number of industrial units where students learn and practice printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, welding, photography and jewelry making. The end result is art, but the processes generate dust and debris, waste paper and chemicals.
“The quality of the air we breathe is very important,” said art studio technician Jim Greenwell, “and we addressed this with the installation of smaller and more efficient hyper filters.”
Cleaning and diluting agents get greener in Westby, too. “We often use water and dishwashing liquid instead of volatile thinners,” Greenwell said. And rather than regular machine oil lubricants, they use a water-soluble alternative. This choice is not only environmentally friendly but also “a lot less messy.”
Greenwell pointed out that many of the environmentally friendly materials the department uses—such as acrylic paint, vegetable oil solvents and water-based emulsions—are cheaper and more accessible.
Solving the solvent problem
Yet another project in the College of Engineering is looking at ways to cut the amount of waste that occurs in producing drugs.
“Typically, the amount of solvent used to manufacture a drug is more than 100 times the weight of the actual medicine itself,” said chemical engineering professor C. Stewart Slater. “When the process is over, these solvents end up as waste.”
Since receiving an Environmental Protection Agency grant in 2005, Slater, fellow chemical engineering professor Mariano Savelski and their engineering clinic students have been working with Bristol-Myers Squibb to reduce that waste.
“We’ve also been looking at ways to reduce solvent use and how that helps the overall environment,” Slater said.
Using less solvent means there are fewer raw materials used to produce the solvent, less energy used, less waste from the solvent-production process and less pollution from the solvent’s disposal, according to Slater.
“That’s called the life cycle analysis,” Slater said. “And that’s the bigger picture.”
To further improve this big picture, the team is studying ways to reduce waste by purifying solvents and making them reusable. “Many of our engineering clinic projects have focused on approaches to make manufacturing facilities greener,” said Savelski.
As the Rowan engineers continue to develop these initiatives, more companies are showing interest in their work. And the EPA grants keep coming in—so far they’ve received more than $200,000. That funding allows them to cultivate green-engineering partnerships with drug companies Novartis and Pfizer as well.
“The pharmaceutical industry is very receptive to [green engineering],” said Slater. “There are many ways to make this industry more efficient, and that’s the idea. That’s the whole idea of being green.”
Some may think all this concentration on environmental issues is something new on campus. But although “green learning” only recently became official buzz words and a front burner issue, it is not a new concept at Rowan.
The seeds of environmental responsibility may very well have been planted in 1968, two years before Kermit’s song hit the airwaves. That year, the National Wildlife Federation named science professor V. Eugene Vivian “National Conservationist of the Year 1967.” The honor brought a great deal of recognition to then-Glassboro State College.
The same year, Vivian, who joined the faculty at Glassboro in 1955, founded an environmental education program at Whitesbog known as the Conservation and Environmental Studies Center. Many GSC students spent time at the center as part of their teacher education.
After his retirement from the college in 1984, Vivian started a consulting firm called Associates for Conservation and Environmental Studies. The firm educated students and companies about environmental planning and conservation. “His passion for the environment has enriched the community for generations,” said Thomas Gallia ’66, M’67, M’70 of his former professor.
Another early advocate of green learning was Gary Patterson M’69, who served as graduate advisor for the master’s program in environmental education from 1974 until 2004. In 1981, he was appointed to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which was created to protect that unique state resource.
Mary Olive Gillespie ’63 helped design a program for gifted and talented students at then- Edgewood Regional High School in Winslow Township. She said that Steven Bartelt, a science teacher at the school and a 1986 graduate of the master’s program in environmental education, invited Patterson to work with the students.
“He was an educator’s educator,” Gillespie said of Patterson. “He had great enthusiasm for learning about the environment and inspired not only the teachers but also the students. He often accompanied my classes on our ecological studies in the Pine Barrens and often spoke to our classes about environmental issues.”
Patterson, who retired in 2005, remains active in the Pinelands Project and is also director of the Pinelands Federal Planning Entity.
Teach in, green out
With a long history of environmental education and so many department and program efforts to encourage green learning, it’s logical for the University as a whole to focus its academic attention on environmental issues. In January, Rowan joined colleges across the country in “Focus the Nation.” This grassroots effort brought together teachers, students, scientists and legislators to find solutions to global warming—a phenomenon that could be the defining challenge of the 21st century.
As part of its Focus the Nation week sponsored by the Glassboro Environmental Organization and the colleges of Engineering, Business, Education, and Liberal Arts & Sciences, the University held a series of lectures called a “teach-in” by 27 faculty and administrators.
Business professor Tom Bryant spoke on business and climate change, noting the growing demand for sustainable products and services. “This,” he said, “has created a bigger market for entrepreneurs and also the creation of new jobs which require a human resource pool with the skills and innovation to deliver those products and services.”
Geography and geology professor Denyse Lemaire addressed the climatic impact of greenhouse gas emissions and the current state of the Antarctic ice sheets and ice shelves. She said Focus the Nation encouraged students to join the “green brigade” and to be empowered with the facts on global warming.
“It challenged students,” she said, “to make their own decisions in regard to climate change. Anybody can be a better citizen. Everybody can participate.”
But for all the complexities of questions about environmental concerns, greener technology and conservation efforts, there may be plenty of instances where a simple approach works. Leslie Spencer of the department of health and exercise science advocates health promotion and healthy behavior. “Our approach to consumption, use of resources, global warming and materialism won’t change unless enough ‘ordinary’ people start to care and want to make a change,” she said. She suggests “voluntary simplicity”—an inward change of attitudes and perspective that would lead to an outward change in lifestyle.
“We can make the conscious decision to have less and enjoy it more,” Spencer said, “to value relationships with people over the accumulation of things, and to live in a way that makes life for the rest of the world sustainable.”
Vaughn Crichlow M’09 is the graduate assistant for the Office of University Publications. He is enrolled in the master’s program for criminal justice at Rowan University. Contact him at vaughncrichlow [at] gmail.com.