Western Michigan University recognized for innovation in sustainability

Contact: Erin Flynn
Keeton Bigham-Tsai stands in front of a green presentation screen.

Keeton Bigham-Tsai was among the students who participated in the first Bronco Challenge for Sustainable Impact. His team explored using aquaponics as a vehicle for sustainability education.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Climate change is among the greatest challenges facing the world today, and Western Michigan University students aren't waiting until graduation to make an impact. Experience-driven learning opportunities focused on closing the sustainability skills gap have earned the University recognition as a top performer in the 2023 Sustainable Campus Index

A publication from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), the Sustainable Campus Index recognizes top-performing sustainable colleges and universities overall and in 17 impact areas, measured through the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System.

“The Office for Sustainability and WMU student leaders want to see local-to-global transformational change that advances sustainability, regenerative practices and climate-change justice. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are the best global framework we know that stitches together both the complexity and the opportunity ahead of us," says Jeff Spoelstra, director of Western's Office for Sustainability. 

"All of us at AASHE extend our warmest congratulations to Western Michigan University for their achievement," Meghan Fay Zahniser, AASHE executive director. "By fostering sustainable practices and initiatives, you set an inspiring example for your peers and future generations. Your efforts are a testament to the positive impact that institutions can make when they prioritize sustainability and take meaningful action."

Joshua VanSlambrouck, a student on the winning Bronco Challenge team, presents his group's urban farming concept to Kalamazoo community members at a local bookstore.

The project that piqued the AASHE’s attention is the Bronco Challenge for Sustainable Impact, which just launched its second competition at the beginning of the fall 2023 semester. In its first year, half a dozen interdisciplinary teams of students were charged with creating a product, service, business or public policy that addresses one or more of the 17 UN Sustainability Goals. 

"Students involved in the Bronco Challenge last year across the board reported that they learned a lot about sustainability, that they gained an understanding of the importance of sustainability in the 'working world' and that the experience caused them to rethink their career plans. One student even reported that he changed his major in alignment with the new sense of purpose he'd developed in the challenge," says Dr. Neil Drobny, program director and affiliate faculty in Western's Haworth College of Business.

Winning projects included Seed, a project focused on closing equity gaps and improving nutrition, food security and community involvement through urban gardening; Aquaponics in Education, a project aimed at creating a curriculum around aquaponics to encourage students to engage in sustainable thinking; and Off-Grid Stadium Lighting, a plan to create a solar-powered lighting grid for Western's soccer field. Teams competed for $19,000 in prize money contributed by sponsors that spanned a number of industries as well as the Haworth College of Business and Office for Sustainability.

"The Haworth College of Business continues to sponsor the Bronco Challenge because it aligns well with our mission to develop the next generation of responsible business leaders," says Dr. Timothy Palmer, director of Western's Center for Sustainable Business Practices. "This is an excellent opportunity for our business majors and minors to work alongside, and learn from, other students from across WMU to consider solutions to society's most challenging problems."

The success of the first Bronco Challenge has drawn in even more support from industry sponsors and interest from students as it begins its second year. Registration is open for students to join the challenge until Friday, Nov. 10, when challenge proposals must be submitted.

"Youth leaders are not waiting around to inherit the earth. They are bringing ideas, capturing resources and showing the rest of us how to decarbonize while also taking care of each other," says Spoelstra. "We are investing in students and the Bronco Challenge for Sustainable Impact because we want to see fast action and impact for the living planet."

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