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From carbon footprint to educational footprint

After working in higher education for several years, I have wondered for some time whether it is better--given limited resources and time--to focus on our "educational footprint" or our "carbon footprint."

Carbon footprint is the exercise of understanding and quantifying your Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Increasingly schools are even looking at Scope 3 emissions.

Education footprint is the total impact of our students educational experience on people, the environment and the economy. We might also think of "educational footprint" as the idea of extended producer responsibility applied to our "product": students. I think about it like this: if we could conduct a life cycle assessment of a student (as we do for products) what would we learn? And what would that tell us about the kind of education we are responsible for providing?

My money is on the need to focus more on students and our educational footprint because:

  • carbon footprint is relatively fixed whereas educational footprint is variable (every year we graduate and add more students to the biosphere)

  • footprint to handprint: education has the magical ability to produce students who disrupt the equilibria and radically improve social and environmental conditions. This is their "handprint" (the good they do) rather just their "footprint" (the negative impact they produce). It is not just Harry Potter fantasy to say that one student can change the world. But this is less likely if we devote too many resources to important (but mundane and low impact tactics like) getting more people to recycle or turn off the lights in classrooms.

  • students are the center of the universe, facilities are not and never will be: I faculty member with decades of experience once told me, "If you want to really change things around here, work with students." So true. Students are the tail that wags the dog in higher education. And students are on the revenue side of the ledger whereas facilities are on the cost side. Revenue will always grab headlines more than cost savings measures. One is hopeful and energizing whereas the other feels austere and painful.

Of course, it is not a binary decision. The truth is that we cannot educate students unless they see us "walking the talk" in our operations. Architecture is pedagogy as David Orr famously said. They need to see it and have plenty of opportunities in multiple contexts to roll up their sleeves and dig into the mess of solving poverty, inequality, pollution and waste of all kinds.

But we also need to recognize, in any endeavor, where will we get the greatest outcome for our efforts. My money is on the students. Their handprints and footprints will be all over this world. We need to dedicate ourselves more than ever to helping them think about what impact--or lack thereof--they want to have.

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