Cal Poly Pomona Prepares Students to be 'Green' Leaders

Cal Poly Pomona Prepares Students to be 'Green' Leaders
Frank Smith has received a grant to study electrifying freight trains.
Architecture grad student Lesley Felton and husband Jonah Swick, inside an Eco-Dome building they worked on at Pomona College in Claremont

Given the increasing number of job opportunities in the environmental sustainability industry and the university's commitment to the green movement, it's no surprise to find hundreds throughout campus focused on sustainability across the disciplines  whether social science, business, civil engineering or biology.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Frank Smith has a simple plan: to see if diesel-polluting freight trains can run on electricity instead.

Although it could take generations to implement and billions to fund, the venture began this fall with a California Department of Transportation grant of just $5,000. The majority of goods that come into the United States enter our borders through Southern California's two giant ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles. The containers are offloaded from ships onto trucks and trains, which travel through the region, headed north, south and east to consumers across the nation.

“But trains and trucks run on diesel, and they are very polluting. We want to see if it's feasible for freight trains to run on electricity as they do in many other countries,” says Smith, thereby making rail transport more efficient, reducing the number of trucks on the road and minimizing pollutants.

Smith, lecturer emeritus in the College of Engineering and technical director of the college's lighting education program, is working on the project with engineering professors – Xudong Jia and Mariappan Jawa Jawaharlal.

“It's easier to control pollution from a stationary source, such as a stand-alone, electricity-generating train station, than a moveable source, such as the current diesel engines,” says Smith.

On the surface, it may sound like a typical public works venture to replace diesel trains with electric trains. But in order for such a structural change to occur, dozens of public and private organizations would have to get on board, not to mention the billions of dollars and the generations it would take.

“With our grant, we're just starting to get information out there about this idea and to see if its possible. It would ultimately require approval and participation by the government, Caltrans, Southern California Edison, the railroads, the truckers union, environmentalists and many, many others,” Smith says. “It'll take years of negotiation with lots of cities, and the money will have to come from government. Maybe my grandkids will see it, but it won't happen in my lifetime.”

It Won't Happen if You Don't Start

The university's storied John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies has long been at the forefront of responsible stewardship of the planet, and those who live, work or study at the center are consistently researching and testing innovative techniques.

In 2004, the center created a Master of Science degree program in regenerative studies in response to a growing demand for professionals with a background in sustainable environmental practices.

“This is a program where individuals are prepared to be environmental problemsolvers for the 21st century,” says Kyle Brown, director of the Lyle Center. “It is an interdisciplinary program, and students look at the ways in which communities operate and how they can provide the support systems in these communities in a renewable or regenerative way.”

Jonah Swick was in the first group of graduates who earned master's degrees in regenerative studies in 2006.

“I've worked in construction for years, and I was concerned about waste and the lack of foresight in the business. This program looks at the bigger picture and focuses on making the world a better place,” says Swick, a project manager for a construction company that promotes green practices.

“Right now, my work is small and local, but it would be nice to work on a grander scale,” says Swick, who hopes to form his own company with his wife, architecture student Lesley Felton. “She's in architecture and design, and I'm the building part of it, adding that they practice an environmentally responsible lifestyle both at work and at home.

“It's always surprising to me that some people still don't think there is such a thing as global warming,” he adds, echoing Smith's worry for the future. “It also shocks me that people still litter, that we don't reuse what we have and that we allow polluted water to run off into the ocean. We are hurting the chances of our grandkids to have a nice life.”

Green Opportunity Knocks

The number of job opportunities in the environmental sustainability industry is increasing, according to Brown. In both the public and private sectors, they are hiring sustainability coordinators due to a combination of factors, he says.

“First, there are regulatory directives to be more sustainable. Second, companies are seeing financial benefits because they are making the most out of resources in the long run. For example, when you lower your energy costs, it is going to positively affect your bottom line,” Brown says.

One such company is Bentley Prince Street, a carpet manufacturer in the City of Industry. The company made the then-radical decision to pioneer environmentally responsible carpet production in 1994, well before being green was hip. As recently as eight years ago, there were sporadic efforts to educate both manufacturers and customers industrywide about environmental sustainability within carpet manufacturing and use, says Judy Pike, director of sustainability and supply for the company. Pike is also a member of the College of Environmental Design's Environmental Partners' Circle Advisory Board.

“My job title is five years old, and we now integrate a sustainable philosophy in all of our decisions. Our goal is for the company to have no environmental footprint by 2020,” she says.

By producing a carbon-neutral product, as well as conducting an environmentally conscientious manufacturing process, Bentley Prince Street has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent, reduced landfill waste by 95 percent, reduced water intake by 71 percent and saved $43 million since 1994.

“Ninety percent of Fortune 500 companies have someone on their payroll working on environmental compliance, environmental affairs or some sort of sustainability,” Pike says. “This is definitely a growing and rich career for students to pursue.”

A Pervasive Subject

At Cal Poly Pomona, the study of environmental sustainability is now being incorporated in many academic curricula. Felton has combined this area of study with her master's degree in architecture, which she'll complete in December.

“My first reaction when I'm asked about why I'm studying this is 'why doesn't everyone see environmental sustainability as an important issue?&#3
9; But, that sounds aggressive, which is not my intention,” she laughs. “It's important because the consumption patterns of the United States cannot continue at the current pace, and simply recycling our cans and bottles is not going to create the type of change that needs to occur. I think sustainable architecture is one small way people can make a difference in their environmental footprints. It reduces the energy consumption of buildings and creates healthier living and working spaces by using less-harmful materials in buildings.

Felton was among a number of students participating in the P3 Project (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Award competition, a national student design contest for sustainability sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Cal Poly Pomona group garnered two top awards for Green Kit, a home-based system that reduces the amount of energy a family uses. The system incorporates a vegetated roof, which reduces heat as well as rainfall runoff, and computer-controlled smart windows that open and close in reaction to weather patterns, thereby regulating air flow, light and heat.

“These are not just ideas,” says Pablo LaRoche, associate professor of architecture who led the P3 program along with fellow architecture professor Michael Fox and engineering professor Phyllis Nelson. “The students built prototypes and tested them to make sure they really worked.”

Just as Frank Smith continues to work on the labor-intensive task of getting representatives from diverse agencies to simply come to the table and talk – just talk – about the possibility of electric freight trains in the Southland, Cal Poly Pomona's students, faculty and staff also persist in leading the way toward making environmentally sustainable practices the norm instead of the exception.

“We're really just getting started,” Smith says. “But, I think it just might be possible.”

**This story originally ran in the Fall 2007/Winter 2008 issue of PolyTrends Magazine. To see the story in its original layout and read other interesting stories about Cal Poly Pomona and alumni, check out PolyTrends online.**