Curriculum: Students Conduct Environmental Audits for Credit and Public Service

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 2 : September 1999  [Curriculum]

By S. Bruce Kohrn, Walter Simpson, Julie Barrett-O’Neill and Joseph A. Gardella, Jr.

In 1995, undergraduate students at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) initiated an audit of campus practices and policies, an exemplary effort that developed into an internship-style audit course. Since 1997, students have conducted environmental audits of various public buildings, including the Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo City Hall and two local high schools, as a public service-learning experience. Students who are motivated to evaluate the practices and policies of these various buildings and institutions learn more in one or two semesters about sustainability than in any other class. In that time they see for themselves in concrete terms what have mostly been abstract concepts about global warming, pollution, energy efficiency, etc. and the connections to politics, economics and the bottom line. At the same time, they learn how to take a project from start to finish, how to organize their work, how to work together in teams and how to work with people other than students and faculty.


Student-driven environmental audits have been conducted on campuses across North America since 1990. The model of the campus environmental audit is based upon the master’s thesis project, In Our Backyard: Environmental Issues at UCLA, Proposals for Change and the Institution’s Potential as a Model (Smith, 1990), the first comprehensive examination of the environmental quality of a college campus. This type of audit attempts to document how a university influences the health of the natural environment through its physical operations, educational policies and research activities.

The campus environmental audit serves several important functions. First, when developed as a component of an environmental education program, the project provides a hands-on learning experience wherein the campus itself, as a set of physical systems and as a human community, becomes a “learning lab” (Simpson, 1996; see also Eagan and Orr, 1992). Second, the product of the exercise serves as an important benchmark for evaluating the ecological sustainability of university operational, educational and research initiatives. The audit process and its product – an audit report – challenge an institution to become an environmentally responsible citizen by minimizing its physical impact on local systems. The report also articulates how colleges and universities may cultivate environmental literacy. Finally, the report acknowledges the unique obligation educational institutions have to develop scientific research on ecological phenomena and to develop solutions for living within ecological constraints.

In 1995, twenty environmental studies students at UB themselves took the initiative to conduct a comprehensive environmental audit of the University’s activities. Their 24,000 word report had four focus areas: resource use and infrastructure planning, solid and hazardous waste management, educational and administrative efforts, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the University’s Environmental Task Force.

The success of the campus audit led to efforts to provide new groups of students with a similar experience. While it was understood that there was more to do on campus and that some issues should be revisited regularly, it was also understood that there was much to do off campus to promote ecological sustainability. During the spring 1997 semester 14 UB undergraduate environmental studies students conducted an environmental audit of Buffalo City Hall, an imposing 32 story Art Deco structure built recently placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Because of its high public visibility, Buffalo City Hall was an appropriate site for this public service pilot project. Assisted by local environmental professionals, the students evaluated the building’s solid waste stream; existing recycling program; purchasing and procurement policies; and energy consumption, usage, procurement and conservation programs. Auditing this building and its offices and operations presented a unique set of political, practical and physical challenges that played out over the next months. The lessons learned from these aspects of the audit process can be considered nearly as important as the results of the audit itself, and certainly provide an important case study in the development of student internship-based public service in environmental management or sustainable development and planning.

Teaching the Environmental Audit Course

The environmental audit is now offered as a one semester, three-credit course in the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Program where UB’s Environmental Studies Program is housed. It is open to juniors and seniors of all majors, but a typical class is comprised of environmental studies and environmental design (architecture) majors. The course syllabus explains that students need to work together in teams and be self-starting. Unlike most courses, the syllabus, by design, does not provide weekly assignments for the students to complete. A step-by-step approach to conducting an environmental audit is not provided. The students need to figure out for themselves what to assess, what data they needed to collect, how to collect and evaluate the data, and how to report their findings. This approach, the syllabus explains, is not unlike the working world. The unstructured nature of the course is a challenge for the students, and, predictably, at the end of the course, the students have mixed reactions. Most are positive about the experience; a few feel that more guidance is necessary and suggest a manual be provided. There have been many lessons about teaching the course, and there are many issues to be considered when students conduct an environmental audit, some of which are discussed below.

An Audit Is Composed of Many Tasks

An environmental audit project involves much more than collecting data. The tasks include: identifying a client organization and negotiating the ground rules for the audit, recruiting students and arranging appropriate academic credit, planning the audit, providing technical training, gathering information and conducting the audit, analyzing data and drawing conclusions, writing and editing the report, presenting the report, and following through to ensure implementation of recommendations.

Some of these tasks are preparatory to the actual audit, and are best accomplished by faculty or advisors who are supervising the audit. Other tasks, i.e., planning, information gathering, analyzing data, writing and presenting, belong to the students. Of course, it is beneficial if students are also involved in other facets, especially the follow through and implementation of their recommendations.

Time Requirements

As a rule of thumb, assume the entire audit process will take at least twice as long as anticipated. In the UB experience, this means the audit is a project that will take two 16-week semesters, yet most students do not have two semesters to commit to the project. Recruiting a second group of students to complete the audit may result in a loss of continuity for the project, a lack of closure for the first group of students, and a lack of ownership in the project for the second group. Thus far, one or two students have been willing to continue work the next semester or during the summer. Alternative approaches which allow the course to be taught in one semester have not been successful, and we are now examining the possibility of conducting the audit as a two-semester, capstone course for honors students.

The student portion of the audit cannot be rushed if the goal is to produce a positive learning experience for the students and a professional, helpful audit for the “client.” In general, one semester is required to train students, gather and analyze data, make recommendations and draft the report. A second semester is needed to edit and finalize the report, present it and seek to implement its recommendations. It is a surprise to most students, but most of the learning goes on in the second semester after the data is gathered and the editing begins.

Overcoming Barriers By Kicking It Off Right

In our experience, an environmental audit of a college or university campus can be initiated without much fanfare or official approval. Campus communities tend to be decentralized, open, permissive forums where “anything goes” and student projects are tolerated if not embraced. Community institutions or political entities, like Buffalo City Hall, are different. They are often closed organizations. Conducting an effective audit of an off-campus entity requires an invitation, as well as top-level approval and support.

Obtaining support from the client organization’s leadership is one thing but communicating it to members of the organization is another. To maximize the likelihood that the organization’s staff will cooperate with student auditors, it is essential that top-level support be communicated right from the start – personally and via written documents. Even so, students must be prepared to encounter roadblocks and resistance. Overcoming them is part of the learning experience.

Audit Scope

As a practical matter, the scope of the environmental audit must be limited, and should be subject to negotiation with the “client” organization. In most cases, students will not have enough time to investigate all environmental impacts associated with a client organization, nor will they possess or have access to the technical skills necessary to tackle some issues. Taking on too much may lead to frustration and sloppy work, thus undermining the whole project.

Another scope issue pertains to how the audit defines “environmental.” Does it include human environmental health and safety issues (e.g., indoor air quality, ventilation rates, employee exposure to chemicals, etc.) or will the audit focus entirely on the client facility’s impact on the natural environment? UB audits thus far have had the latter focus, because health and safety issues are generally already addressed by a health and safety officer at each facility and may raise liability concerns.

Supervision and Budget

One might hope that an environmental audit could be conducted without a budget and funding. But as a practical matter, good will and good intentions may only go so far! If the project is to be sustainable, replicated and expanded over a course of years, as we hope to do in Buffalo, a funding source is needed. Primary costs include travel and reimbursable expenses for students and project supervision costs. A self-sustaining, long-term project is unlikely if all supervision is by volunteer faculty and staff who must find time above and beyond their normal responsibilities to participate in the audit process and to work with the students.

Product vs. Process

There is a tension between turning out a highly polished professional document (most likely to produce the desired environmental changes in the client’s facility), and “letting the students do it themselves.” It’s important to strike the right balance.

Most students are not experienced enough to conduct the technical aspects of the audit or to direct and manage the project by themselves. In addition, writing and editing may not be student strong points. In the UB experience, students need outside help and guidance from faculty advisors or from other technical resource persons. But ultimately the students must have a sense of ownership of and responsibility for the project. This may somewhat compromise the quality of the final document but, as an educational activity, the first priority should be the learning experience.

It is important to keep in mind that the students’ learning experiences are about more than acquiring procedural knowledge of an audit or about how various human practices impact the environment. Participation in an audit also teaches students about themselves, about working together and about working in their communities to undertake real projects. It’s an exercise in personal empowerment.

Faculty supervisors must be careful not to rob the students of all these intangible outcomes by being too intrusive. On the other hand, the experience can be negative if student leadership does not emerge and the students are allowed to flounder too long. The instructors must strive for the right balance between teacher guidance and student initiative.

The Student Learning Experience

When the first environmental audit class concluded, all the students who worked on it remarked that the experience was very positive. A majority stated in unequivocal, enthusiastic terms that this was the “best course” they had taken in their four years at the University! What did they learn?

An environmental audit is, by its nature, a hands-on experience. It involves leaving the classroom and getting out into the community (campus community or wider community, depending on the focus of the audit) and working cooperatively with other students and non-students too. The process itself is instructive. Moreover, the task refocuses the educational experience; the campus or a community institution becomes a learning lab.

Thus, students learn about themselves, i.e., how to plan, execute and work together, and how to be creative and inventive about obtaining data, defining issues and finding solutions. Students learn to view their immediate surroundings as the subject of study. If the process works, they also learn about how to re-energize learning with excitement, vigor and self-direction.

Of course, conducting an environmental audit also teaches students about environmental impacts and how to measure them. The students learn about the environmental impacts of local buildings, and have an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned in their previous courses. Students learn how concepts of ecological sustainability play out in the “real” world by seeing just how much paper, energy and resources a major office building consumes daily and how much garbage and carbon dioxide it produces. Additionally, in the real world context, the students must grapple with questions such as: how do we obtain the data we need in a politicized arena like City Hall? What recommendations will really work given the real life constraints we have encountered? What do we need to do to make something happen?

Implementing the audit’s recommendations or “making something happen” is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the audit. And how to make something happen is hopefully what students learn by taking part in an audit project. Thus, conducting an environmental audit contributes to ecological sustainability by creating an experience through which students teach themselves that they can change the world. A successful experience will also provide students with the motivation and confidence to actually do so.


Eagan, David and David Orr, Eds., 1992. The Campus and Environmental Responsibility. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
Keniry, Julian, 1995. Ecodemia: Campus Environmental Stewardship at the Turn of the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.
Simpson, Walter, 1996. “Environmental Stewardship and the Green Campus,” Facilities Manager, p. 39 – 45, January. Smith, April, 1989. In Our Backyard: Environmental Issues at UCLA, Proposals for Change and the Institution’s Potential as a Model. MA thesis project, Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. University of California at Los Angeles.

S. Bruce Kohrn is an adjunct lecturer in Environmental Studies at UB. He is also founder and President of SBK Environmental Research, Inc., an independent environmental consulting firm based in Buffalo and specializing in community-based research. He can be reached at

Joe Gardella is professor of Chemistry at UB, the past chair of the UB Environmental Task Force, and Associate Dean for External Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Walter Simpson is the UB Energy Officer. He can be reached at Julie Barrett O’Neill, currently a law student, was an undergraduate in Environmental Studies at UB. She led a team of 26 students who performed the school’s first Environmental Audit.

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