Living Labs

Universities as Living Laboratories

Universities as Living Laboratories


Increasingly conversations about research and education in sustainability focus on the concept of the living laboratory – using the university and its community to provide a real life context for problem-based integration of research, teaching, and university operations.  Learning labs are touted as the way to achieve transformative learning opportunities and actionable sustainability solutions.

While most of the literature on sustainability living labs is case-based rather than theoretical, efforts are underway to better describe the underlying framework.  AASHE held a three-day workshop in 2013 on “Designing a campus sustainability living lab.” The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), an organization of 60 universities and colleges (of which 13 are US-based, including MIT, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Hopkins, Georgetown) is organized into three working tracks, with one being “Integration of research, teaching, and facilities.” That ISCN devotes a third of its work to living labs illustrates the importance this concept is taking on in the field, particularly internationally.  Despite the convergence of interest around livings labs, there is an important nuance in the conversation underway: some narrowly construe a living laboratory to be about facilities and learning through collaborative work on things such like energy efficiency.  Other conceptions are much broader and more exciting.  These conversations use living labs as a way to create a fundamental shift in education and research toward collaborative real-life problem-solving. 

There is tremendous potential in the campus Living Lab concept, since it breaks through the current curricular and operational paradigms to add a new model for both education and sustainability action.  Living Labs have the potential to engage students, staff and faculty in citizenship, leadership in sustainability, and to provide a service that benefits the GW campus. 


Living Lab Examples at GW


Solar Farms


Living Laboratory to Study Solar Farms

During the 2016-17 academic year, Prof. Saniya LeBlanc intertwined research and education by delivering a case study of Duke Energy Renewable (DER) solar farms' technical, financial, and environmental facets and integrating real-world energy applications into graduate and undergraduate courses. The Living Lab started with a 3-day site visit by three faculty and eight students to the DER Pasquotank solar farm in Elizabeth City, NC, and the DER headquarters and remote monitoring center in Charlotte, NC. After the site visit, the team created case studies examining the financial and environmental implications of the solar project. The economic report compared the solar farm power generation and financial metrics to those of a combined cycle power plant and assessed the financial effectiveness of each power generation technology. The environmental report measured the hydrologic impacts of solar farms on the immediate surroundings. Faculty and students worked together closely to develop these analyses. 


Sustainable Landscaping


Sustainable Landscaping

Associate Dean Adele Ashkar runs a sustainable landscaping program at GW that has produced numerous new landscapers. Excerpts of their portfolios are available here and many are now working in the Washington area for private customers. The strategy group believes the portfolio website will advance opportunities for Landscape Design alumni and their companies by putting prospective clients directly in touch with them. 

The program is also responsible for the Square 80 plaza at GW. This site replaced an existing parking lot and service alleys with an urban plaza, expansive lawn, ornamental tree grove, extensive pedestrian network, and an outdoor classroom for GW’s new Sustainable Landscape program.

The Landscape Design Program includes classes in landscape graphics; design theory; site analysis; site engineering and construction methods; history of garden design; a full year of plant courses with field trips to local public gardens, such as the U.S. National Arboretum; site and planting design classes; and a capstone project in which students design a landscape from start to finish. In the program, students learn about native plants that are essential for sustainable gardening, such as milkweed and black-eyed Susan, the design of rain gardens, energy and storm water conservation, green roofs, ecological restoration, green buildings and communities, and edible landscaping.

Students in earlier years put their classroom skills into practice on campus, helping faculty, staff, and volunteers install a green roof on the City View Room Terrace at 1957 E Street. “It was such a great day and a really exciting hands-on opportunity for us,” says Ashkar, who hopes both to find other projects on campus for her students and to conduct outreach about sustainability and conservation with local schools and the community.


Changing Student Behavior to Reduce Energy Consumption


Changing Student Behavior to Reduce Energy Consumption

Former GW Prof. Ram Fishman ran a living lab designed to show the university as a lab for energy use behavior. It illustrated how university courses can be transformed into applied research projects on environmental behavior on campus, in a way that: (1) educated students in modern research methods; (2) eontributed new evidence to the growing literature on behavioral determinants of energy use; and (3) offered practical help to campus administrations that aim to become more “sustainable”.

Using surveys, data collection, and randomized control trial experiments, participating students found that while their peers express strong convictions about the severity of climate change and their personal responsibilities, these statements are not reflected in either their levels of awareness of the carbon footprint of their day to day actions, nor in their actual energy usage in the campus dorm. Consistently with this, environmental messaging did not alter energy consumption. However, informing students of their comparative level of energy usage in relation to their peers led to reductions in energy usage in student dorms despite the fact that students do not pay for electricity.

Conducting additional studies of this kind in a network of campuses can make significant practical and scholarly contributions. There are 150 million university students globally, with some 21 million in the U.S. Their future impact on society is likely to far exceed their sheer numbers. Thus, finding ways to change the energy use habits and environmental attitudes of these students can have large and long-term impact on future carbon emissions. Coordinating such research activities between large numbers of campuses will allow for an evaluation of numerous approaches to energy conservation as well as for multi-site replicated and homogenized large scale evaluations of interventions that are found to be promising. Such coordinated research programs are hard to implement in other contexts and can have tremendous scientific benefit. Coordination between universities will also improve the educational benefits of studies of this kind.


Opportunities for Students

SUST 3096. Directed Research in Sustainability

Students can participate in a directed research project with a GW sustainability faculty member that might include laboratory research, archival work, or literature reviews. Students complete a series of reflection essays and other assignment throughout the semester. Contact the Sustainability Collaborative for more information about current research opportunities.