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Georgia Tech Interns Rise to the Carbon Reduction Challenge

This summer, the inaugural Co-op and Internship Carbon Reduction Challenge gave interns–holding a variety of positions within major corporations—the chance to learn what it takes to be a sustainability ambassador at their place of employment no matter what their job title might be.
Beril Toktay

By Beril Toktay

As an educator and concerned citizen, I believe no time can be wasted in energizing today's students to become tomorrows change makers. Following the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, private sector leadership in reducing our carbon footprint is more crucial than ever.

At Georgia Tech, we have formed an innovative partnership between the Scheller College of Business and the College of Sciences to train students to become leaders in creating sustainable businesses and communities. This summer, the inaugural Co-op and Internship Carbon Reduction Challenge gave interns-holding a variety of positions within major corporations-the chance to learn what it takes to be a sustainability ambassador at their place of employment no matter what their job title might be.

The co-curricular program sprouted from a question asked by former Scheller College corporate relations manager, Lauren McDow. When asked how co-op positions and internships could be included in our Center's growing sustainable business curriculum, Lauren wondered, "Can't students offer innovative sustainability ideas to their employers based on their observations at work?" As I mulled over possibilities, a cross-connection with Professor Kim Cobb's long-running Carbon Reduction Challenge project class came to mind. In her class, Energy, the Environment, and Society, her students designed and implemented strategies to achieve significant, quantifiable CO2 reductions in partner organizations.

Applying a project with a proven track record to a new venture seemed like a surefire plan. Kim got very excited about its potential, and we got to work. Over twenty students from four colleges within Georgia Tech signed up for the Challenge at more than ten organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies, prominent NGOs, and the City of Atlanta. Several projects have already been approved, which will collectively result in over 12 million pounds of CO2 emissions reductions and hundreds of thousands of dollars in estimated savings. I couldn't be prouder of our students not only for identifying fantastic projects but also for shepherding them through the finish line in two short months! And this on top of their regular internship duties.

This summer's Challenge culminated at the Finalist Poster Expo on August 14, where students enthusiastically discussed projects with guests. As I toured the expo, I often heard students say that success boiled down to finding the right person at their organization. Aditya Thakur, a process and manufacturing engineering intern at Volkswagen, said, " I made a lot of progress after I talked to many different people in the plant and found someone who was also working on reducing carbon emissions." His proposal involved reducing energy costs by replacing a section of lights in the Chattanooga manufacturing plant. In addition, students learned that the business case needed to be compelling.

Sam Pak, who interned at Southface, said that making people aware of the monetary value in reducing carbon emissions was key. "The more desirable this becomes," he said, "the more likely it is to become an industry standard." William Courreges-Clercq, a technical/systems analyst intern, saw the value of translating sustainability concepts into easy-to-understand terms. For a C-Suite presentation, he said, "We transmitted carbon reduction impact into relatable terms. For example, reducing 1.85 million pounds of CO2 is the equivalent of watching the Ed Sheeran cameo on Game of Thrones for the next 575 years straight on a 42-inch LCD television. Many folks can relate to such an example and laugh a bit as well."

Kim and I look forward to continuing the Challenge this year by expanding it to the co-op program, and we hope to establish it as an ongoing program. Our best advertisement moving forward will be this summer's cohort. As Alex Poux, an upstream mechanical engineering intern at BP, said, "participating in the Challenge makes a good impression because it shows a level of initiative that other interns might not demonstrate." William Courreges-Clercq said the experience helped him realize the power he has to make a difference. He said, "By participating in the Carbon Reduction Challenge, you have nothing to lose besides carbon itself."

The Challenge is funded by a grant from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation's NextGen Committee and the Scheller College Dean's Innovation Fund, and is an affiliated project of the Georgia Tech Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain.

Beril Toktay is a Professor of Operations Management and the Faculty Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, at the Scheller College of Business.

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