Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund: a Meaningful Outlet for Experiential Learning and Change Making

Since 2019, in addition to running the Planet Blue Ambassador program, I have had the opportunity, challenge, and joy of co-advising the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC). For those of you less familiar with the multitude of sustainability programs at the University of Michigan, SSC is a group of undergraduate and graduate students who aim to amplify the student voice on sustainability to the university administration and accelerate change across campus. 

These students are impressive young people. They organize and facilitate day-long sustainability summits; they advocate for student input in campus planning and building projects; they convene their peers to build common agendas to direct their advocacy; and they have, through their hard work, earned recurring meetings with university leadership including President Ono. I’m also particularly proud of the 2022-2023 cohort for the way they were able to award almost the entirety of their $100,000 of Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund budget to resource student sustainability efforts on and around campus. 

Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund Projects 2022-2023

While I’m excited about all of the projects the team funded this year, the one I am personally most excited about is the Farm Stand on Wheels. Students from the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program and the Campus Farm are collaborating to bring to life a mobile market trailer for the Farm Stand. This will streamline their operations providing a dual-purpose storage and display space allowing the team to extend Farm Stand hours and explore additional locations across campus. The trailer will be constructed over the course of the Fall 2023 semester by student volunteers led by professor Joe Trumpey, a joint Program in the Environment and School of Art and Design faculty member and Director of the Sustainable Living Experience, utilizing lumber from his summer course on local milling. The project will also incorporate solar panels for lighting and device charging. SSC member Stephanie Rosas put it best: “We were excited to fund this project because it incorporates so much student involvement. Anyone can have a mobile trailer, but one built by students with local milled lumber, that’s something different.”

Image of the current farm stand set up with an arrow pointing towards the new design for the mobile farm stand
The current farm stand set-up and a proposed sketch of the new mobile market trailer

The mobile farm stand trailer will be able to be towed around campus by the second PBSIF funded project, which is the Campus Farm Electric Delivery Vehicle and Charging Infrastructure. Students for Clean Energy is the group collaborating with the Campus Farm on this project. The electric vehicle purchased will be used for daily farm operations and produce deliveries across campus and in the surrounding area. This project also entails the installation of a solar array with micro-grid capability to power the vehicle. This charging system will work in concert with the farm’s cold storage unit, and a student design project will focus on coding the solar array to transfer power between the cold storage and the vehicle battery. SSC member Trevor Wallace remarked that, “A project of this scale wouldn’t happen without different parts of our U-M community working together,“ and that couldn’t be more true. Since the Campus Farm was itself launched with a PBSIF project, and since the cold storage unit was another PBSIF grant, this project pieces together at least 4 different student-led innovations.

Stepping away from the Campus Farm over to Oxford houses, the Sustainable Living Experience (SLE) is starting up a Mushroom Cultivation Project with PBSIF funds. The goals is for SLE students to grow mushrooms for M-Dining to serve in Twigs and other dining facilities, and to sell at the U-M Farm Stand. The project will incorporate two mushroom gardens. One large grow tent will be used for production purposes, and it is estimated that its weekly production could exceed 100 pounds of mushrooms. A smaller demonstration garden will be housed in the Noble Lounge for educational purposes with a small library of books on mushroom cultivation. “I loved the idea of making an educational replica of the production grow tent so that more people could see and learn about the mushroom growing process,” said SSC member Mia Flynn.

On North Campus, staff from the College of Engineering Integrative Systems + Design Green Team are installing two large bat houses they are calling “Biff’s Bat Houses.” Their goal is to support the existing bat population’s pollination efforts, highlight their beneficial impact on the control of mosquito populations, and to provide a safe roosting location. They plan to install an outdoor all-weather sign to help with educating the public and promoting the positive role of bats in the ecosystem. They chose to name the bat houses after the first U-M mascot, Biff the wolverine. My SSC co-advisor, Alex Bryan, was excited for this project because it came from a staff project team: “For the first time this year, a portion of the Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund was open to staff and faculty applications, so long as the projects incorporated significant student involvement. I was glad to see staff members utilizing this funding and providing some innovative new projects for students to get involved with.”

The last PBSIF funded project this year is surrounding the concept of Microbial Carbon Capture. The Global CO2 Initiative student organization is planning to pilot a carbon capture device that will capture excess CO2 out of the water in the Huron River. The goal of this project is to pilot this technology and scale up to a larger device that can be implemented in the Ann Arbor Wastewater Treatment Plant. The project will involve many students who will be able to test the device. 

The Value of Co-Curricular Engagement Work

The PBSIF projects funded this year are impressive. They will certainly catch people’s attention, and they will make a small but measurable impact on greenhouse gas emissions for the U-M Ann Arbor campus. Importantly, they also demonstrate how student-led projects have the ability to thread the complicated structures and systems that can make change challenging and slow at a large university. With most of our sustainability staff and administrators necessarily focusing their efforts on complex power purchase agreements, $25 million revolving energy funds, large-scale composting efforts, campus-wide building standards, etc. leveraging student education into our operational changes can spur very meaningful progress on fun, unique, innovative projects that might not get done otherwise.

In addition to the impact on campus culture and carbon emissions, what people may not recognize about these projects is the experiential learning that has already happened and will continue to happen throughout their implementation. Through these projects, the students involved have learned about so many things including:

  • Writing grant applications
  • Reviewing grant applications 
  • Reducing bias in the review process
  • Incubating project ideas
  • How the University of Michigan operates 
  • Managing a budget
  • Transferring funds within a university 
  • How to give helpful feedback on letters of intent
  • How to write a project summary
  • The value of having conversations in real time versus over email

The list could go on for a while, but basically students gain a ton of valuable experience that will be highly relevant for any of the jobs they may go on to hold after graduation. In addition, these students gain a sense of agency, autonomy, and self-determination that is critical for them to understand as they go out into the world and continue to make meaningful change in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. While the PBSIF money often goes towards solar panels, locally-grown vegetables, or signage, the impact is just so much bigger because it happens with the aim of not just sustainability, but also leadership development.