Applied Sustainability: High Meadows Foundation supports campus-based projects that yield real-world results

Posted on February 2, 2018

by Jared Flesher

On a warm fall day, the sound of a brassy fight song floats across campus as much of the university prepares for a football game. But just a shout away from Princeton Stadium, under the factory-high clear span of the new Architecture Lab, junior Nico Viglucci has made different plans for the afternoon. Last week he taught himself to weld. And today he’s convinced a group of classmates to help him move, by hand, the huge metal rack he fabricated as his first welding project.

student working inside bus Nico Viglucci '19, a mechanical engineering student, is leading the retrofit of an old school bus into an energy-efficient "tiny house". Photo by Jared Flesher.

The rack will hold solar panels. And the solar panels will sit on the roof of an old school bus Viglucci is painstakingly converting into a mobile “tiny house” filled with energy-saving add-ons and an experimental heating and cooling system. The bus will also be outfitted with monitors to collect data about its energy use.

“Princeton is very big on theoretical academics,” Viglucci says. He then gestures to the massive rack sitting nearby on the concrete floor. “This is very hands-on. On the spectrum it's all the way on the other side.”

There's evidence that attitudes about applied projects have changed rapidly and interest has never been higher. The shift can be witnessed in departments across campus, and particularly through one longstanding opportunity: the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund.

Viglucci’s “School Bus Tiny House” is one of more than a dozen projects supported in 2017 by the fund, which is administered by the Office of Sustainability. Since 2008, it has awarded grants of up to $10,000 to Princeton students, faculty and staff who have an idea that exists at the intersection of sustainability and tangible action. The fund’s description highlights its focus on “measurable outcomes that will contribute to cultivating a sustainability ethos on campus.”

student studying plants outside Artemis Eyster ‘19, a geosciences student, led a hands-on seminar last semester to catalog and measure natural resources around campus. Here she sketches a spicebush, Lindera benzoin, a native plant whose berries are an important source of food for migrating songbirds each fall. Photo by Jared Flesher.

Junior Artemis Eyster is another student to receive 2017 High Meadows Foundation support, for a student-initiated seminar titled “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas.” The class sent Princeton students paddling on Lake Carnegie to measure bottom sediment, wading in feeder streams to install water-quality monitors, and trekking through patches of forest to catalog plant communities.

Eyster designed the class with an eye toward utility: she hopes the hard-earned environmental data will help inform future decisions on campus restoration, construction and storm-water projects. Just as importantly, the methodologies developed will—she's hopeful—spur more data collection at natural areas all across campus.

“We're trying to show the importance of quantitative measures of natural resources,” Eyster says, for the most tangible reason: “to determine management strategies.”

solar powered golf cart outside Art Museum Michael Brew, the Manager of Finance and Personnel Operations for the Art Museum drives one of the solar-powered golf carts.

Other recent projects supported by the fund include the Princeton Vertical Farming Project, a pilot study of solar-powered golf carts for the University Art Museum, and the student design of an electric boat motor for use on the crew team launch boat. Over the past decade, the fund has awarded support for 110 projects that have included faculty research, senior theses and other campus-based initiatives by students, faculty and staff.

“The early years of the fund supported some of the first ‘Campus as Living Lab’ academic and administrative projects at the University,” says Office of Sustainability director Shana Weber. “Those efforts were test cases for whether using the local setting to really dig into scalable solutions to global issues was a viable idea here at Princeton. And clearly it is.”

While the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund now provides only seed funding, Weber notes that other opportunities for applied research have become available. Princeton faculty can now find support for sustainability-related research projects from the “Innovation Fund for the Campus as a Lab,” which is a multi-departmental pilot initiative launched in 2016 and administered by the Office of the Dean for Research.

“It’s exciting to see members of the campus community collaborating on applied projects, with increasing cooperation across courses, entrepreneurial programs, academic research, administrative processes, and departmental initiatives,” Weber says. “Within my office, one of our priorities is to support the momentum around Campus as Lab wherever possible. That includes helping smooth the sometimes bumpy road between academic and operational endeavors.”

All Princeton students, faculty and benefits-eligible staff members are encouraged to apply for 2018 funding from the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund.  Proposals with budgets up to $5,000 are accepted year-round, and proposals with budgets up to $10,000 are accepted three times per year.

For more information about the High Meadows Foundation Sustainability Fund and the application process, please visit the funding website.