Penn. Campus


Campus-As-Lab: Reducing Air Travel Emissions

November 2, 2020
airplane in sky

The “campus as a living lab” concept facilitates the use of our campus grounds for environmental sustainability research and learning. Exploring the operational dimensions of Penn can generate new knowledge to help advance sustainability on campus and in our broader Philadelphia community. 

In the Spring of 2020, Professor Megan Ryerson (UPS Chair of Transportation at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design) taught the course CPLN 750: Advanced Transportation Seminar with an emphasis on reducing air travel emissions from Penn’s own travel. Dr. Ryerson’s students worked with Mark Mills (Executive Director and Chief Procurement Officer, Purchasing Services) and his team in Purchasing Services to comprehend the scope of air travel emissions from Penn travel and the current systems that exist for data collection. The students also surveyed faculty, staff, and students regarding their awareness of air travel emissions and to learn how they make travel decisions. 

Read our Q&A below with Dr. Megan Ryerson and Mark Mills to learn more about this example of campus as a living lab! 



Q: What were some of the highlights from the class presentations at the end of the semester? 

A (Megan): Mark and I met in the fall of 2019 and discussed our shared goal: to reduce Penn’s CO2 emissions from travel. According to an analysis of Penn’s data, travel by Penn faculty, students, and staff accounted for 20% of Penn’s total carbon footprint. In the Spring of 2020, my cross-listed City Planning/Electrical and Systems Engineering course decided to take on this challenge and devise a four pronged study to reduce Penn’s CO2 emissions from travel: quantifying emissions in detail; surveying the Penn community’s awareness of emissions when making travel decisions; designing carbon offset programs that benefit our students and our local community; and outlining travel policies that support lower-emission multimodal travel. The students put forth several creative, innovative proposals, including levying a tax per trip and using this money to fund sustainability fellowships. The students performed analytics on different modes of travel to compare efficiencies, including transatlantic flights vs. local flights, as well as flights vs. trains vs. buses vs. van rentals. These comparisons and efficiency calculations allowed the students to put together a list of best practices to minimize travel-related emissions.


Q: What were some of the takeaways from the survey given to faculty, staff, and students? How are perceptions around University-related travel shifting during COVID-19? 

A (Megan): We performed the surveys in February and early March of 2020. In these pre-pandemic days, the response from faculty, staff, and students in terms of their consideration of emissions when they travel was mixed. Some respondents explained that they rely on in-person interactions and would not be willing to reduce travel while looking for employment opportunities or attending conferences. However, as we have seen this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, academia has quickly shifted to a virtual setting, and many people have had to rapidly adapt to remote work, conferences, interviews, and other academic functions. 

As travel policies are changing frequently in the current climate, this is the time to lay the groundwork for the sustainability-related policies and practices we want to see incorporated into travel processes in order to reduce the University’s carbon footprint from air travel. 


Q: Why is the concept of campus as a living lab important to you? 

A (Mark): This isn’t the first time that Purchasing Services has partnered with an academic program or class. In Spring of 2019, Colleen Reardon (Director of Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability, Purchasing Services) worked with a group project team in Penn's Integrated Product Design program to reduce waste from catering on campus. The Purchasing Services team has also worked with students at Wharton and the Weitzman School of Design on economic inclusion projects related to Penn’s supply chain. Often, the procurement function can be seen as a group simply chasing every nickel and dime to find savings, or negotiating terms to protect the University.  But the function is much more than that, and it truly embraces Penn’s values with respect to inclusion and sustainability. Campus as a living lab allows Purchasing Services to borrow expertise from the incredibly smart people at Penn and be inclusive of thought, while giving staff the opportunity to connect with faculty and students with whom they may not normally work. This helps strengthen connectivity to Penn and adds purposeful meaning to the work we do. It also helps us continuously improve as a team while offering students a view into University administration.

A (Megan): Penn is founded on the idea that Innovation and Impact are intertwined. We have a culture of developing robust scholarship and using the results to develop actions for the public good. Related to CO2 emissions, Penn has the opportunity to be a leader among Universities and institutions in this moment. My team of students found through interviews and document review that Universities are looking to one another for leadership; it’s therefore a critical moment for Penn to take a firm stance on fighting climate change. Engaging Penn faculty and students and studying travel at our own institution allows us to develop plans and guidance for our own University, but moreover will serve as motivation and a blueprint for others to follow our lead. 


Q: tell me more about using campus as a living lab and encouraging research that benefits our own Penn and/or West Philadelphia community.

A (Megan): In transportation, we have robust theories and mathematical approaches; these are only so good as they describe the environment and the decision-makers in the environment – that’s us! Having Penn’s campus serve as living lab can be a practical application of these theories. Viewing campus as a lab allows researchers to directly address some of society’s most pressing problems right in our own backyard. The direct applications of our environmental sustainability and travel research have global impacts for climate change and, if we follow the suggestions of my students and develop local offset programs that provide seed funding for local sustainability projects, can help connect us to our University City and West Philly neighbors.



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