Through its Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) and as part of its larger commitment to sustainability, equity, and climate action, the University of Arizona (UArizona) has supported dozens of projects over the past two years that promote environmentalism and help address disparities in sustainability efforts.

Established in 2021, CSF is administered by the UArizona Office of Sustainability and provides funding for student, faculty, and staff projects focused on improving sustainability and equity on campus and in the surrounding communities. As of October, 30 projects had been funded, totaling nearly $930,000. CSF offers two types of grants: mini-grants and annual grants. Mini-grants, ranging from $250 to $5,000, support smaller-scale projects that must be completed within a semester or year. Annual grants range from $5,000 to $100,000 and are designed for projects with timelines of up to three years.

As part of the UArizona Sustainability & Climate Action Plan — a recent commitment the university made to be carbon neutral by 2040 — there has been a push for greater student involvement in climate discussions on campus. Through CSF, students can voice their opinions and ideas on environmentalism and sustainability and participate in decision-making regarding the funding, approval, and implementation of projects, says Madison Gerdes, outreach and connections specialist in the Office of Sustainability.

The Bulk Foods program at UArizona’s Campus Pantry, funded by a $10,000 annual CSF grant, enhances food distribution to students in need by offering a wide range of dried foods in reusable containers, reducing waste. (Photo courtesy UArizona CSF)
The Bulk Foods program at UArizona’s Campus Pantry, funded by a $10,000 annual CSF grant, enhances food distribution to students in need by offering a wide range of dried foods in reusable containers, reducing waste. (Photo courtesy UArizona CSF)

All CSF projects are supported by funding directly from students through a sustainability fee each semester — $10 for those enrolled in seven or more units and $5 for those under that threshold. Projects are reviewed and approved by a paid student committee that also coordinates with project managers to help them meet their goals.

“We believe this is a really unique opportunity for students specifically to gain project management experience and spearhead projects up to $100,000, which I believe is an opportunity you really can’t get anywhere else as a student,” says Gerdes. “We especially feel this way because we are funded by student fee money, and we want to see it going back to the students.”

The largest grant amount as of this fall, $86,000, was awarded to Growing Equity-Focused Environmental Leaders and Educators led by the Bio/Diversity Project, an existing collaborative initiative between UArizona’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, Saguaro National Park, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, among other environmental organizations.

The project involves building an education pathway of diverse environmental science professionals by placing UArizona students in K-12 classrooms to help implement a biodiversity-focused science curriculum. CSF funding converted previously unpaid project internships into paid positions, making the opportunities more accessible to and equitable for a wider range of students. As a result, participating interns of color doubled from 41 percent to 82 percent in 2022.

The BioDiversity Project, a CSF-funded internship program, empowers a diverse cohort of UArizona students to teach K-12 students about sustainability and environmental science. Photo courtesy UArizona CSF. (Photo courtesy UArizona CSF)
The BioDiversity Project, a CSF-funded internship program, empowers a diverse cohort of UArizona students to teach K-12 students about sustainability and environmental science. Photo courtesy UArizona CSF. (Photo courtesy UArizona CSF)

This expansion fits well within the project’s goal of building both human and ecological diversity, says Jill Williams, PhD, the director of WISE.

“We want to foster more diverse and inclusive environmental science communities,” she says. “We’re doing that by expanding access to innovative environmental science educational opportunities for [K-12] students and professional development opportunities for university-level students.”

The Indigenous-Centered Mini Grant, known as the Indigeponics project, funded by a $5,000 CSF award, empowers Indigenous communities to cultivate fresh produce using innovative and sustainable techniques, while offering educational training and support to both Indigenous and UArizona community members.

The initiative consists of online resources and in-person workshops that provide technical training, foster community, and teach the skills and tools necessary for sustainable food growth. Participants receive free, at-home hydroponic kits.

The project also focuses on bridging the gap between traditional technologies and Indigenous communities by developing curricula and guides for broader access. The team will continue to engage with Indigenous communities, organizations, and tribal governments to provide educational resources.

CSF has supported a variety of student-led projects, including Project Rethink Climate, which was initiated by environmental science major Hunter Gibbs and is focused on raising sustainability awareness by providing UArizona students with a free field trip to the Biosphere 2 science research facility in Oracle, Ariz. The project aims to break down barriers related to cost and transportation and involve students who may not typically engage with sustainability efforts. The goal is to involve a broad spectrum of participants and promote interdisciplinary engagement on sustainability topics.

“That was really a huge focus of this project, getting everyone a seat at the table when it comes to discussing issues of sustainability,” says Gibbs.

Other notable student-led CSF projects include Native Plant Gardens, Campus Pantry Bulk Foods Program, and Sustainable Citrus Plus. The latter program expanded an aquaponics system to include citrus and fruit trees. The fruits from these trees are then donated to UArizona’s Campus Pantry, to address issues of food insecurity while promoting sustainable practices.

The impact of CSF-funded projects is visible around campus and the Tucson community, with initiatives like bike repair stations, Earth Day events, symposiums, and the Campus Bike Shop contributing to a more sustainable environment, says Gerdes.

This article was published in our November/December 2023 issue.