AWS Public Sector Blog

Higher education utilizes cloud and student engagement to drive sustainability improvements

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Sustainability is becoming a priority topic across public sector organizations. As Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers and education industry experts highlighted earlier this year in the “Innovation drivers in higher education” report, student demand for comprehensive sustainability strategies is a key factor in driving this change. The Times Higher Education’s student experience tracker survey reinforces these observations, finding that 86 percent of respondents believe that universities have an important role to play in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).

Universities and colleges around the world are taking an active role in sustainability efforts. They are increasingly incorporating sustainability into cross-institutional strategies, differentiating their curricula and research funding proposals, and innovating in support of their communities and wider society.

Universities have a broad platform to drive sustainability improvements through their research and thought leadership while leveraging student and faculty passion. The outcomes of which can impact student populations and university campuses, but also wider and, in some cases, global, communities.

Sustainability as an institutional and campus priority

George Mason University (Mason), the largest public research university in Virginia, has adopted a clear focus on on-campus innovation to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 (Scope 1 and 2 Greenhouse Gas Protocol). Its efforts have been recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), which awarded Mason the first Gold rating in the state of Virginia. Mason is implementing campus initiatives such as banning the use of single-use plastic, establishing the Greenhouse and Gardens program, and diverting an increasing proportion of its waste to recycling and composting facilities. Upcoming campus expansion plans now include the Fuse building, which will serve as the home to faculty and students working with the school’s Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA). When completed, the Fuse will be net-zero-ready and LEED Platinum rated, with features such as a green roof for energy-efficient heating and cooling.

Student and faculty interest in sustainability has shaped institutional investment in curricular and research learning opportunities. Mason has established several institutions within the university that convene students, faculty, and industry to help achieve its sustainability mission. The Center for Climate Change Communications generates insights to help society make informed decisions on environmental impact and actions to take to prevent further harm from climate change. Additionally, Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE) offers an environment for students and faculty to conduct research within all areas of the United Nations’ 17 SDGs to support a just, prosperous, and sustainable world. More than 500 Mason faculty from a wide range of academic disciplines have registered as Affiliate Faculty with ISE.

Amplifying innovation in the community and beyond

Higher education institutions have utilized digital technology and cross-industry collaboration to accelerate and amplify their sustainable innovation. California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) created the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) powered by AWS, which provides students real-world experiential learning to solve challenging problems facing public sector institutions and communities in innovative ways. As part of the DxHub program, students, innovation staff, and faculty collaborate leveraging the Amazon Working Backwards process and AWS technology expertise to deliver impactful projects for local communities.

Students have created a positive environmental impact through a digitally-powered solution prototype for the San Bernardino County municipal government. The prototype counters illegal dumping with a four-part system consisting of analyzing high-altitude imagery, collecting low-altitude drone data, deployable, ground-based cameras, and a citizen-reporting application. All the collected data feeds into a cloud-based hub to record, verify, rank and schedule mitigation efforts.

The DxHub team also developed an application for the State of California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to improve the efficiency and accuracy of processing and reporting on pollution data. They also prototyped a web portal and biodiversity data analytics suite for NatureServe to help protect endangered species through faster data access enabling decision makers to plan conservation actions.

“The DxHub has a tremendous opportunity to make a positive impact here at Cal Poly as well as across the state, nation, and globe. Whether it’s helping law enforcement agencies to be more effective and efficient or addressing difficult challenges with non-profit organizations, we can make a difference with our innovation processes and technical depth in combination with public sector mission expertise,” said Paul Jurasin, founding director of DxHub. “As shown through the high demand by students for DxHub positions, work that supports public sector solution development is a big driver for student engagement.”

Accelerating sustainability utilizing cloud technology in research

Investing in research on planetary health topics is another way that higher education institutions are cementing their role in addressing conservation challenges and combating climate change.

As the urgency of climate change intensifies, research institutions are joining forces and using open data, particularly historical data sets such as weather or geospatial data, to understand and combat changes to our ecosystem. The impact of climate changes on Tanzania’s Zanzibar island resulted in collaboration with Digital Earth Africa, an organization that provides a trove of digital data including decades of satellite imagery. Through the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI), AWS is storing petabytes of satellite data at no cost to the project. The State University of Zanzibar is using the Digital Earth Africa data to help students improve their geospatial analysis skills and identify opportunities for conservation activities. AWS Open Data programs democratize access to data by making them available for analysis on AWS, which enables researches and students to learn and collaborate as part of their sustainability initiatives. 

Research and innovation typically go hand-in-hand. Cal Poly’s DxHub demonstrates this through its collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute which measures the impact of offshore wind energy production on the deep-water ocean ecosystem. The DxHub team leverages image recognition and machine learning (ML) to automatically annotate and classify deep-sea organisms. This helps researchers assess potential impacts to the deep-water ocean ecosystem associated with the implementation of offshore wind energy technologies.  Over a 10-month period, the team produced 20,000 labelled images, creating an ML model that will be able to identify species with 90 percent accuracy.

The project team used several technology services from AWS such as AWS Elastic Beanstalk, to write and upload code into a cloud environment to run and scale their application.   Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances are running the Node.JS code and for storage, the team utilized Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS)  for label and training information and Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for images and raw video.

Looking ahead

Universities are uniquely positioned to help find resolutions to the sustainability challenges the human population faces. From thought leadership and research to innovation and management of carbon footprint on their campuses, higher education institutions can play a major role.

With clear and comprehensive sustainability goals, cross-border and industry partnerships, student and academia collaboration, and the use of modern, digital technology, universities can be a catalyst for sustainable transformation. As educators and thought leaders, institutions have ample credibility and broad platforms that can help to drive sustainability goals for their institution and wider community.

Find out more about Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI) or identify your sustainability use case.

Greg Farley

Greg Farley

Greg Farley is director of university sustainability for George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has held similar positions at Washington College (Chestertown, Maryland) and Chesapeake College (Wye Mills, Maryland), where he was also an award-winning instructor and director of the Chesapeake College Center for Leadership in Environmental Education.

Paul Jurasin

Paul Jurasin

Paul Jurasin worked as the director of new programs for information technology services (ITS) at California Polytechnic State University. He led the development of new technology programs, with a focus on fostering relationships with corporate and public sector partners for ITS.

Wendy Corns

Wendy Corns

Wendy is a global business development lead and a member of the Environment Sustainability Technical Field Community at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Wendy assists education organisations in adopting cloud technology and achieving their digital transformation goals, for the benefit of their organisation and the student community.