Austin College first welcomed the class of 2027 on August 18, 2023, during move-in day for first-year students. Six students representing the student organization Austin College Thinking Green (THINK) stationed themselves in traditional residence halls — Baker, Clyce, Caruth and Dean Hall — to help reduce waste during the big move. THINK students have annually participated in first-year move-ins for over a decade to help spread awareness about living sustainably and encourage environmental consciousness beginning with the first day students arrive.
THINK volunteers were available in each dorm to provide general information about the mission of THINK and how to recycle at AC. Postcards with the do’s and don’ts of recycling on campus were also distributed to interested students.
In addition to spreading environmental awareness to new and returning students, THINK students provide support to AC’s invaluable housekeeping staff responsible for managing waste generated on move-in day. Volunteers spent the day directing the flow of cardboard to designated areas inside and outside of each building (often involving some heavy lifting) and assisting with break down so that housekeeping and facilities employees were able to concentrate their resources on general operations. Without the efforts of these staff members, AC’s recycling efforts would likely fall flat.
In total, THINK was able to help divert approximately 30 cubic yards of cardboard from the local landfill, roughly equivalent to nine truckloads or 1,500 lbs. Not bad for a Friday afternoon.
Recycling cardboard reduces the sulfur-dioxide emissions associated with the production of cardboard boxes, as well as the water and energy usage involved in producing cardboard from virgin materials. It can also help decrease the rate of logging required to supply cardboard manufacturing. According to the EPA, around 17.2 million tons of paper and cardboard are dumped in landfills each year. It’s a lot to unbox. By spreading awareness, students have the potential to reduce AC’s contribution to such environmental impacts.
After 30 minutes of being rocked gently by the sloping contours of Highway 75, I was more than half-asleep when our van stopped by a road within Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. My research professor, Dr. Wayne Meyer, had taken another student and I earlier to this part of Hagerman to locate the male territories of a neotropical migratory songbird species called Painted Buntings. These birds are almost a gorgeous caricature of bright passerines. Their name derives from the variety of colors older males sport, which includes blue on their heads, red on their chests and bellies, bright green on their backs and dull green on their wings. Younger males and females are bright green on their backs and greenish yellow on their chests and bellies. During our first visits to Hagerman we recorded the songs of several individual males. Today, we were focused on collecting data for a study my professor had been conducting for the last 10 years or so. The study involved an experiment designed to compare how aggressively males responded to males in a subadult age class and an adult age class. It was remarkable how cool the weather was that June.
We got out of our van and set up our equipment to test a bird we called PBh 7. We put a wooden decoy of a Painted Bunting on a pole and placed a speaker underneath him. That speaker then played recordings of other Painted Buntings singing. Rushing to the taunting threats of a rival’s song, PBh 7 soon appeared perched on his favorite tree. His little chest rose mightily and his wings began to quiver as he sang. (I only hope the absurd joy of this moment is properly conveyed here.) In this moment, we had impersonated a Painted Bunting in order to aggressively challenge PBh 7 into a singing and wing quivering contest. Around me I could see my professor and the student beside me delighted at the sight of this bird’s adorable temper tantrum. Dr. Meyer especially seemed to appreciate such a macho display. This was the closest he had been to a displaying Painted Bunting in a few years.
Among ornithologists, Dr. Meyer is one of the few who does research on Painted Buntings. If you look for any literature on Painted Buntings, you may likely find very little. That’s part of the reason he has spent so long researching these birds. When he first set out to research Painted Buntings, nobody knew how they expressed aggression through song. Eventually, he figured out that Painted Buntings communicate how aggressive they are by attempting to outperform rivals’ songs with singing that is described as virtuosic. That is to say, the longer and more complex the singing, the angrier the Painted Bunting. This research led him to the question we asked last summer: Why are young males green? Could having entirely green and yellow feathers signal to males that they should be treated with less aggression? Are young males trying to trick older males into treating them like females who are also green? That is what we were trying to figure out. Getting an answer meant we needed to spend a lot of time out at Hagerman NWR recording birds as we attempted to make them as angry as possible.
During these trials, I pointed a mic at the bird we were testing while Olivia, Dr. Meyer’s other student, counted how many times a bird quivered its wings, which is another indicator for aggression. It was during our time analyzing all these recordings on computers that I got to know Olivia and become her friend. Together, we bonded over the long and sometimes arduous walks through the tallgrasses, and discovered how fulfilling and complicated research can be. We learned how desperate for an answer people can get when no one else can answer it.
When PBh 7’s tirade came to a stop, I knew what the answer probably was to our summer’s question. What immediately tipped me off to it was that by the end of our observation period, PBh 7 came closer to our decoy than any other bird. Further, Olivia observed him display 11 wing quivers, which was a fair number. The decoy was painted to look like a subadult. That is to say, PBh 7 did not care how old our decoy looked. He did not go easy on green subadults. This sort of behavior continued with other subjects, which means by the end of our research, we found no evidence to suggest being treated with less aggression is the reason younger males are green. After all the walking through wet grass and all the tick bites, we still were without an explanation as to why younger males look like females. This is what makes the slogging process of research so wonderful. It takes an incredible amount of time to collect and analyze data on wild animal behavior. And yet this logistical nightmare comes with zero guarantees as to what you might learn from the data. But learning anything, even simply that you have the wrong hypothesis, feels like a step in the right direction.
When relatives or friends ask how I spent my summer, I typically say, “I made some birds really angry,” but I hope to be less reductive as I sum up my experience. I got the chance to see complex organisms display complex and mysterious behavior. I spent hours discussing evolutionary theories that attempt to explain the timing of developmental changes in Painted Buntings. I met and worked with fascinating and kind people. Finally, I learned I love research. I hope as time goes on, my career leads me on to new research opportunities.
As we layer up to bear the cold air outside, we may sometimes become so preoccupied with staying warm that we forget we’re not the only ones trying to survive the winter. Though they may be brown and a little sad, your perennials are probably still alive. With a little effort, your spring garden is likely to thrive — if you follow measures to meet its basic needs. Let’s go over the ways you can make sure your garden blooms again in spring.
Watering your plant babies
Without the boiling heat of summer, you may not need to water your garden as frequently as you do in warmer months, but like all living things, it still requires a steady intake of water to survive. It is especially important to keep the soil somewhat moist when plants are still attempting to establish their roots. We recommend that you water your garden around 1-2 times a month for 15-20 minutes each. Make sure you concentrate that water onto the root balls of plants transplanted within the last year.
Protecting your plant babies from bullies
Winter is the best time to clear your garden of weeds while their growth is suppressed. Weeding now will save you a lot of time and effort in spring when weeds grow, well, like weeds. Watering your plants more than they need may also stimulate their growth early, so never water more than 20 minutes unless your garden is completely dry two inches deep into the soil.
Keeping your plant babies warm
Just as a coat keeps you warm, mulch insulates gardens throughout the winter while trapping moisture. Two to three inches of mulch will suffice to keep the temperature in your garden more constant in the winter. If you did not get around to mulching before winter, you still can before freezing weather puts your garden in jeopardy.
Extra measures may also be necessary to prevent winter damage. Keeping an eye on the forecast is the best way to determine if further measures are required. If you anticipate a freeze soon, make sure that your soil is moist because drier plants are more susceptible to harm from cold. If forecasts expect temperatures below 20 degrees, you may even consider pruning or covering certain plants with insulating fabrics, depending on the species.
Planning for spring
Remember that all this hard work in winter is leading to the huge payoff of spring’s colors and fragrances, and that all these gorgeous organisms rely on your toil to live and bloom. If you’ve adopted a garden bed on campus or have one at home, you have probably spent hours planning your garden, transplanting, weeding, and watering like I have. Every winter, we’re at risk of losing this investment. If we’re intent on holding on to our little chunks of natural capital, we must endeavor to provide what we can to keep our gardens alive and reduce the number of plant deaths on our collective conscience. At the very least, you can save yourself the time and money of transplanting new ones!
A: AC Unplugged is an annual energy saving competition hosted by THINK, pitting the four traditional residence halls at Austin College against each other — and themselves — to reduce their energy use throughout the month of October. The event aims to help students lower their energy consumption, make better usage habits, AND benefit the local community through charitable donations made by THINK on behalf of contest winners.
Q: How do you win the competition and what is the prize?
A: THINK records baseline data for each residence hall at the end of September, then uses that baseline to graph changes in energy use overall and per individual throughout October. The residence hall that reduces their consumption the most from the baseline is awarded the top prize. The prize for first place is $300, second place is $250, third place is $200, and fourth place is $150. All halls cooperatively donate their prize money to a local charity of their choice at the end of the competition. The first-place winner is also awarded the official Thinking Green Championship Belt, along with bragging rights for next year’s competition.
Q: Which residence hall won the 2022 competition?
A: Baker Hall narrowly took first place over Dean Hall and Caruth, last year’s victor. Baker Hall residents reduced their energy consumption by nearly 60 percent compared to baseline data over the course of the competition. Nearly 4,000 kWh of energy savings were recorded for Baker alone. Baker donated their $300 prize to the Grayson County Crisis Center.
Q: Why is saving energy important? What are the benefits?
A: Saving energy is important for the environment for various reasons: it can help lessen carbon emissions, reduce pollutants in the air and water, and conserve vital natural resources. Current energy production often requires the burning of fossil fuels. By reducing our overall energy usage, we are effectively decreasing the amount of energy needed to be produced, resulting in a more sustainable system.
Q: What are some ways that students can reduce their energy use?
A: We’re glad you asked! Overconsumption of energy is a big contributor to climate change. According to the EPA, 40 percent of all energy consumed in the United States is used for electricity. Reducing your use of electricity is essential for reducing your environmental footprint. In college, it’s easy to get caught up in your school work and social life and disregard your impact. However, there are many simple ways in which you can alter your behavior that have beneficial impacts on the environment. Here are six easy ways to keep saving:
Flip the switch! It is so simple, yet so effective. Ensure your lights are off when not in use. You could even opt out of using artificial light entirely by opening your blinds during the day and using natural light instead. You could also consider using more energy efficient light bulbs, such as LEDs, and rely on lamps for light during the night.
Unplug (literally) Contrary to what you may think, electronic devices still use energy when they’re plugged in, even if they aren’t in use. Unplugging lamps, TVs, laptops, and other electronics can help conserve energy. Using power strips could make this even easier — just flip the off switch, and it’ll power down all your devices at once! Also, it isn’t necessary to keep your phone or laptop plugged in overnight. Just make sure your device is fully charged before you go to bed, so you can keep it unplugged through the night.
Use cold water Using cold water instead of hot water helps conserve energy by reducing the amount of energy required to heat it. Taking cold showers or washing your items in cold water is a good way to implement this. You could also reduce the amount of time you spend in the shower if you are using hot water. A fun way to do this can be by putting on music while you’re in the shower and getting out when the first or second song is over.
Skip the AC, open a window! Instead of using your air conditioner, open a window! Not only will it help conserve electricity, but also your energy bill. To make it easier, dress for the weather. In the winter, pile up under some blankets or wear a sweater inside if you get cold. In the summer, stick to lighter clothing or turn on a fan. Electric heaters, anyone?
Take a hike (to class) Here at Austin College, we are lucky to have an easily walkable campus. Considering it is so small, walking to class is easy. It can decrease your energy consumption and increase your overall physical wellbeing. Driving to classes increases the amount of emissions cars put into the atmosphere, as well as how much money you’re spending on gas. According to the CDC, spending at least 150 minutes doing physical activity per week significantly reduces your risk for many chronic diseases. Many college students struggle to find time for physical activity during the school year, so walking to classes is an easy way to ensure you’re getting those steps in. There are so many benefits to walking!
Change your laundry habits There are many ways we can change our habits when it comes to doing laundry that can reduce our environmental footprints significantly. Spacing out how often you do your laundry can not only decrease your energy use, but also your water usage. Instead of doing frequent, small loads of laundry, just do big loads less often. This can save the amount of time you spend on laundry as well. You can also skip the dryer! Letting your clothes air dry keeps them in good shape, so they last longer and it doesn’t require any energy.
This past summer I was given the opportunity of interning for the East Foundation for two months. The East Foundation is an organization that promotes the advancement of land stewardship through ranching, science, and education. They are a working cattle ranch, managing over 217,000 acres in South Texas. Here, scientists and ranchers work side by side to address the problems that are important to wildlife management, rangeland health, and ranch productivity.
I always knew Texas was a huge state, so it was no surprise to me that I would have to drive around six hours from my home in central Texas to the ranch where I would be working. The ranch that I worked at encompassed more than 150,000 acres and was located in the South Texas Sand Sheet. The change of scenery from central Texas to the ranch was absolutely mind blowing. Beautiful flowering cacti and plants dotted the sides of the highways. The plant life there was very pretty, except for the fact that essentially every plant has spines or thorns of some sort.
I’m not originally from Texas, so I haven’t been around cattle ranches that much up until this past summer. Working on the ranch as a “Ranch Ecology Technician” was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in my life up until this point. The never-ending sandy dunes of the South Texas Sand Sheet, along with the beautiful wildlife that scattered the hundreds of acres were simply amazing to witness. I worked alongside three other interns, along with many other groups of scientists who worked on different research studies around the ranch. I was even lucky enough some days to even go out with some of these different groups to help them out with their research.
My tasks as an intern focused on collecting data for two different research studies. The first research study was determining the amount of preferred and nonpreferred vegetation present around the ranch. We did this by collecting data at about 100 different points at various set locations at the ranch. Our supervisor would then use this data to determine the stocking rates of the cattle for the next few years, along with seeing if the current ranching techniques are sustainable or not. Our second research study focused on the population and habitat quality of the bobwhite quail on the ranch. We did this by visiting 140 set points around the ranch, using various factors such as woody density, bundle grass size/density, and vegetation height, to then determine whether or not bobwhite quails have available quality nesting sites.
My favorite experience from the entire internship was being able to see the wildflowers bloom after a rainstorm one night. Because I live in such an urbanized town, I am not used to seeing native wildflowers and plants bloom after it rains, so being able to witness such a beautiful thing was amazing. Being able to just step outside of headquarters on the ranch and see hundreds of stunning, unique flowers dotting the landscape was truly spectacular and peaceful. It was one of those moments where you kind of just stand there and soak in the beauty that life is and the beauty that it brings with it. It was moments like these that I was grateful to be given the opportunity to intern at a place like the East Foundation.
On April 23, 2022, AC students participated in the college’s 12th annual GreenServe service event, where volunteer projects are focused on environmental responsibility and sustainability. Co-sponsored by THINK and the Austin College Service Station, this event has generated over 3,500 service hours for volunteering students since the project began in 2010. It has also spawned numerous collaborations with area non-profits and other organizations within the community.
Students, alone and in organizations, are encouraged to sign up in the weeks leading up to GreenServe. During the week of the event, smaller gatherings are normally hosted to raise awareness about the upcoming service day. This year, THINK hosted an art night, where students got to make wearable buttons and other art using recycled materials, and a “Beengo” bingo night, where the hosts provided facts about bees and how they are an integral part of the ecosystem facing immense environmental pressure. Bees were the theme of this year’s event.
At 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning, all the students, staff, and faculty that signed up to volunteer gathered at the College Green, where they received official GreenServe 2022 T-shirts and donuts provided by Momo’s as a send off before they began volunteering. Then teams of students, each with a THINK member as their site leader for the day, peeled off to various places in the Sherman/Denison community to complete or assist with a service project.
At the Sherman and Pottsboro community gardens, students worked to maintain beds and prepare them for further planting. At two Habitat for Humanity sites, students in Lambda Chi fraternity worked to organize and maintain the Restore thrift store warehouse, while the CHAMPS disability advocacy group on campus continued construction on a historic 100-year-old home site near in Denison. At Eisenhower State Park and Sneed Prairie, students in organizations such as Rho Lambda Theta and Gamma Gamma Gamma completed regular maintenance needs like trail clearing and fence repair. At multiple highways, Alpha Phi Omega and Service Station board members collected trash. In Sherman’s downtown square, yet another group of students assisted with tabling and logistics for the Texoma Earth Day Festival and recycling event hosted by the City of Sherman.
A unique feature to this year’s GreenServe was the increased opportunity for groups to complete service on campus. This semester, the Center for Environmental Studies and THINK launched the “Adopt a Butterfly Bed” on campus. The goal is to revamp our campus flower beds with native, perennial grasses and flowers that are planted and maintained by student organizations throughout the year. Alpha Phi Omega, the Drakes, and Theta Sigma Chi were among some of the groups that adopted a bed and spent their GreenServe morning on campus working in their beds.
The Center for Environmental Studies is happy to announce that its recent proposal to increase native, perennial landscaping on campus has been enthusiastically approved by the college’s senior leadership. The “Adopt a Butterfly Bed” project will not only help to enhance campus aesthetics, but ultimately aims to provide learning and service opportunities for interested student and staff groups while promoting biological diversity and increasing native habitat area and ecosystem services. Hardy perennials also require less water and active maintenance than annuals, saving additional college resources and manpower.
Environmental Studies faculty and staff members worked with the Physical Plant’s Executive Director of Facilities, David Turk, to create the proposal last fall. Since then, ENVS staff and students have worked to review and expand upon a list of suggested native and perennial plants for our area, identify suitable beds for adoption around campus, and establish connections with the local chapter of Master Gardeners, who are excited to lend a green thumb to burgeoning horticulturists at AC.
The project has already garnered interest from a number of student organizations on campus, but staff and faculty groups may also apply to adopt. Once high priority beds have been distinguished, beds will be assigned on a first-come-first-served basis. The Center for Environmental Studies will distribute tools and training materials in addition to scheduling information sessions for adoptive groups. To maintain a high standard, groups will sign a contract outlining their responsibilities and adopted beds will undergo quality control inspections on a regular basis.
If you or someone you know would like to get involved with this project, please reach out to ENVS coordinator Rebecca Jones or faculty member Dr. Mari Elise Ewing to express your interest.
In honor of this laudable landscaping announcement, we’ve (almost literally) taken a page from the work of late local author and Grayson County Master Gardener Jessie Gunn Stephens to offer a few tips for maintaining your own Texoma garden. Her book, “When to do What in your Texoma Yard and Garden,” is available for sale at the Agri-Life Extension office in the Grayson County Courthouse.
How to Plant from Pots
Take the plant out of the pot. Seems like a no-brainer but, as Stephens writes, “you’d be amazed how often this comes up.” While some pots are biodegradable, Stephens prefers removing the pot to allow for quick root growth.
Inspect the plant’s root system. Understanding the strength of a plant’s roots can help inform your watering and care practices. Thin, weak roots indicate that a plant may require special treatment until it is established. Thicker, hardier roots (especially in perennials) are more likely to survive transplantation but need to be loosened to allow for spreading.
Don’t pile dirt over the root ball. According to Stephens, “It’s almost always best to set a plant in the ground so that the surface of the soil ball is either level with or fractionally higher than the surrounding soil.”
The Austin College Environmental Studies Program will offer three opportunities for internships during the summer of 2022. The internships are hosted by the Land Institute, located in Salina, Kansas; Little Traverse Conservancy in Northern Michigan; and the East Foundation in South Texas.
A degree in environmental studies opens the door to a wide variety of future career paths, a prospect that can be both exciting and daunting. Taking a summer to explore a career is a great way for students to narrow down their options or explore previously unknown career paths. These internships offer experience in the developing field of sustainable perennial agriculture with the Land Institute, land conservation and easements with Little Traverse Conservancy, and the practice of land and wildlife stewardship alongside ranching with the East Foundation.
Past interns have found their time in these internships to be an excellent means to gain experience in the field of environmental studies, as well as granting insight into future career paths and providing opportunities to learn from professionals across a variety of fields.
Thinking about applying? Here are some tips from past interns:
Apply Early. Don’t let the application process interfere with your spring coursework — spend some time over the break reading through the AC internship and host organization websites to figure out the best fit for you and get your thoughts on paper. The Center for Environmental Studies will help you handle everything else.
Ask Lots of Questions. Not sure which internship opportunity best suits your career path or goals? Contact an ENVS faculty or staff member to express your interest and concerns. You can also ask other students who have previously held internships — they usually love talking about their experience!
Come Prepared. You’ve officially secured your internship, but what should you pack for the journey? Staples like hats, sunscreen and bug spray are a must for most sites, but many former interns also recommend bringing items that remind you of home. Don’t forget your lucky socks, favorite stuffed animal, comfort food, etc.
Explore and Interact. Many former interns report that one of the highlights of their experience is the people they work with on a day to day basis. Get to know your bunkmates and co-workers, and take the time to visit other locales of interest to make your internship richer, more fulfilling and memorable.
Be Ready to Work Hard. Manual labor is a part of all the internship experiences provided by the Center for Environmental Studies, but that shouldn’t deter you from applying if you have a real interest in the overall mission and/or goals of the host organizations. It’s also important to remember that you are a representative of the college when you are at these sites, so act accordingly.
Austin College students are currently competing in the twelfth annual AC Unplugged energy savings competition. The goal of the competition is to teach good energy use habits and to educate students on the environmental impact of high energy consumption.
AC Unplugged has been a campus tradition for over a decade, beginning in 2010 as a way to encourage a reduction in campus emissions. Since then, the competition has raised over $10,000 for local and national charity organizations and saved more than 97,000 kilowatt hours of electricity between the four residence halls: Caruth, Clyce, Dean and Baker.
Over the years, the Grayson Crisis Center, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Grayson County, the Texoma Health Clinic, and the Grayson County chapter of Habitat for Humanity have received a large portion of the money donated after being selected by the halls’ popular vote, with the most money being donated by the winning hall each year.
The theme for this year’s competition celebrates a classic pop ensemble as it encourages students to “spice up their lives” by saving energy. The Spice Girls theme for the 2021 year was selected to encourage campus residents to try new ways to have fun that don’t involve using electricity. In the final week of the competition, Caruth Hall is leading the way with a nearly 30 percent reduction in energy use compared to the baseline.
AC’s traditional residence halls have already saved more than 30,000 kWh in this year’s contest – a new record. Students have participated in an outdoor game night and a hot sauce eating competition, painted terracotta pots for spice planting, and, this week, are strutting their stuff in a thrifty Spice Girl Lookalike contest. What are you doing to reduce your energy use?
With Austin College teaming up with Recyclops to get back to recycling on campus, it’s a good time to ask some fundamental questions about recycling contamination. Namely, what it is, and why it matters.
What is recycling contamination?
Recycling contamination is any non-recyclable item that winds up in the recycling stream. Some contamination might seem obvious, like soiled motor oil containers. Other contaminants are less apparent, like wax-lined paper cups. The two best ways to avoid recycling contamination are to familiarize yourself with what is and isn’t recyclable according to the guidelines of your local service, and to trash items you aren’t sure about. If you’re not sure whether an item is recyclable or not, it’s better off in the trash than contaminating the recycling. Remember, one more item heading to the landfill is better than an entire container of contaminated recycling heading to the landfill.
Why does it matter?
Contaminated recycling doesn’t get reused or repurposed, it goes to the landfill. Even if the recycling isn’t taken to the landfill, contamination creates a major problem for recycling facilities. Contaminants such as plastic bags can wrap around the machinery used to sort and process recyclables, leading to a shut-down of the facility while employees climb inside the equipment to clean out the tangled items. Food containers — like pizza boxes — are often stained with grease that soaks into the paper. If the boxes end up in the recycling, they will be processed along with clean recyclables, contaminating an entire batch of paper pulp with grease and rendering it non-reusable.
What can AC students do to help?
Following the Recyclops guidelines for recycling is essential. So, before you recycle, ensure that:
You have the right bag for your recycling. If you live in the North or South Flats, Bryan Apartments, Roo Suites, or Cottages, make sure you have the required green recycling bags to collect your loose recyclables. You can collect a semester’s supply of these bags from the Environmental Studies Coordinator, Rebecca Jones.
Your items are recyclable. Recyclable items on campus include plastics number 1, 2, or 5; paper; cardboard; and metal containers, such as food tins or soda cans. Ensure that all items are dry and clean of food residue. Paper with dry ink is fine, but wet, shredded or plastic-coated paper is not recyclable. For more information, check out the AC Recycling page.
Remember, if you aren’t sure whether an item is recyclable or not, it’s better to put it in the trash than to risk contaminating the whole container. When in doubt, throw it out!