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St. Clair County Community College: Using Sustainability Efforts on Campus as Learning Labs

Over the past decade, St. Clair County Community College (SC4) in Michigan has transformed its 25-acre campus into a sustainable “living laboratory.” St. Clair County Community College: Using sustainability efforts on campus as learning labs

Green roofs dot the tops of buildings, a bioswale cleans tens of thousands of gallons of rainwater and alternative energy implementations like solar panels, wind turbines and a geothermal field are generating energy to power computer labs and other facilities. Each of these green projects serves a dual purpose: reducing the college’s carbon footprint, while also providing students real-world, hands-on learning opportunities.

The installations are accessible to students and faculty to study, monitor, repair, and in some cases, take apart and re-install. For SC4 and a growing number of colleges, this is being done in an effort to make instruction relevant to students, many of whom are pursuing careers in clean technology sectors or simply have a passion for sustainability and resource conservation concepts.

“We had everything we needed right on campus. We could use the mechanical spaces for students as real, living-world applications for all these types of systems, and that’s where the concept for the living lab was born.”
- Tom Donovan, director of physical plant
As colleges set out to develop such campus-wide living laboratories in a way that maximizes students’ learning experience while being cost-effective and safe for students, it will require strong collaborations with committed corporate partners. For SC4, Siemens Industry, Inc. has been that collaborator. The company has worked with the college from conceptualizing the initiative and securing equipment (including a $25,000 donation to purchase a wind turbine), to implementing infrastructure and energy efficiency improvements, and revamping curricula. The partnership is helping the college meet its educational goals and institutional commitment to sustainability.

The campus as a lab

In 2003, Tom Donovan, SC4’s director of physical plant, met with his Siemens account management team (Siemens serves as the college’s energy services company) to brainstorm about an educational track for HVAC and building automation—both high-demand career fields in the area.

“It occurred to me that some of our buildings were 100 years old; others were 12 years old and between them, we had every conceivable system,” Donovan said. “In other words, we had everything we needed right on campus. We could use the mechanical spaces for students as real, living-world applications for all these types of systems, and that’s where the concept for the living lab was born.”

Donovan later mentioned the idea to Don Reuba, an instructor of renewable energy, robotics and automation at the college.

“It made sense,” Reuba said. “Everyone has a budget, everyone has limited resources. We’re all trying to do a lot with a little. The concept and approach came together.”

Seeing how it all works

Siemens worked with Donovan and other SC4 leaders to create a sustainability education program for SC4. This included, along with several renovations and retrofits, a living HVAC lab in the main building’s boiler room. The upgrades each serve as educational opportunities and include:
  • An expandable and user-friendly control monitor designed to help students and faculty study the climate of the building and generate various energy consumption reports.
  • New Siemens building automation with tagged, labeled and color-coded piping and wiring to help students and faculty understand how the various pieces of the new energy-efficient HVAC system work together and flow through the mechanical room.
  • A window wall for students to view the new energy-efficient equipment that replaced the boiler system and chiller.
  • A kiosk outside the mechanical room with a dummy workstation, allowing passersby to see the building automation system in action and understand how the building’s comfort is controlled. The kiosk includes real-time feedback for temperature, flow rates and other data.

Curriculum insights

To augment the college’s applied technology curriculum, Siemens organized a site visit for SC4 faculty to Lane Community College (LCC) in Oregon. LCC has the country’s premiere energy-management associate degree programs and its own comprehensive campus living laboratory.

Since visiting LCC, several SC4 instructors have earned certifications in energy management and now work energy management concepts into all of the courses they teach.

“Now we can integrate that energy efficiency lesson into the real-world application of creating energy savings for SC4, but also into classroom lessons on automation, helping our students become better prepared for their careers," Donovan said.

A unique part of the SC4 program is that the sustainability lessons contained within each of the labs extend beyond the technology courses. Instructors in the social science, political science and economics departments are using the labs for their own project-based learning opportunities.

“We realized that students have a lot of interest in renewables, and the living labs are a great way to bring some fresh air into the classroom…with alternative ways to teach concepts we were already teaching,” noted one faculty member. “And with all of us cooperating—across departments and disciplines and with Siemens—we have been able to create a better product than any one of us could have done on our own.”

The living lab concept of blending classroom instruction with hands-on and campus-based learning opportunities is the perfect complement to the college’s mission of maximizing student success. In addition, now 10 years into its partnership with Siemens, SC4 can point to more comfortable and energy-efficient facilities that are less costly to operate, and a real reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These are outcomes that are important to SC4 students, faculty, administrators and the entire eastern Michigan region.

Picture: St. Clair County Community College students use data loggers in a “living lab” to measure and analyze water temperatures as part of the solar-powered hot water system in the college’s Acheson Technology Center.
This resource made possible with the generous support from the Kresge Foundation