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Sustainability a growing movement at colleges, universities across Canada

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TORONTO - Sustainability is quickly seeping into every crevice of campus life at some colleges and universities in Canada and each year they're churning out reams of green graduates schooled in the ways of environmental building.

But true sustainability in construction, engineering and energy isn't going to come about by just dedicating one program to it, say staff, faculty and students - it's about a way of thinking.

Bob Emptage, the dean of technology, environment and apprenticeship at Georgian College, based in Barrie, Ont., said to achieve sustainability students must be taught to incorporate it into every step of the building design and construction process.

"I think there's a perception there's a whole lot of green jobs out there," Emptage said.

"There's no such thing as a green job, but there are a number of core skill sets and knowledge areas such as electrical, mechanical, environmental, civil, architectural."

Georgian College has a number of programs such as environmental technology, electrical engineering and architectural engineering that are housed in the school's Sustainable Technologies Skills Centre.

Students who go through those programs are equipped not just to work in niche green construction settings, but they can apply green thinking to whatever their particular skill set may be, Emptage said.

"You come out with the core knowledge required in those service areas to be able to do the work, but have been strongly influenced by alternative ways of fulfilling those traditional roles," he said.

The University of British Columbia takes that philosophy to heart. Sustainable factors are at work throughout the whole university, which even has its own sustainability office.

Charlene Easton, the director of the sustainability office, said they try to create a campus-wide sustainable environment, not limited to academic programs.

UBC has a program that allows students to research sustainable solutions to problems at the university. Students get a mandatory bus pass and food services use biodegradable plates, for example.

Students are "absolutely excited" by it, she said.

"I think students are really turned on by sustainability," Easton said.

"This demographic knows that it is in their lifetime that they have to solve climate change ... Students are aware of these things. More than maybe any other generation, it really matters (to them)."

David Elfstrom studied sustainable building and design at Fleming College, based in Peterborough, Ont., in 2006. He had previously studied civil engineering then worked in medical physics for almost 10 years.

"After learning about peak oil and seeing the documentary 'End of Suburbia' I decided I needed to do something," Elfstrom said.

Peak oil is the point when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached and "End of Suburbia" is about oil depletion and "the collapse of the American dream."

"The choice I thought about at the time was, 'Maybe I could go learn organic farming, organic agriculture, or oh, wait a second - I have this engineering degree. Maybe I can use that."'

Fleming's program takes 26 students a year and it runs only during the summer term - otherwise known as construction season. For the course the students build a sustainable public building, such as a museum or community centre.

Since graduating Elfstrom has established his own engineering company that primarily focuses on green heating systems and energy audits for existing buildings.

He sees the sector is weathering the economic downturn reasonably well, as some of the only homes being built right now are sustainable ones.

"It's still a long ways to go before natural building becomes a mainstream approach, so there's a huge amount of potential growth in the sector," Elfstrom said.

"But the whole concept of green buildings for example is a very strong growth industry."

Chris Magwood is the instructor for Fleming College's program. Five years ago he was teaching part-time and had his own sustainable building company.

He was turning away as much work as he could take on and was flooded by applications whenever there was a job opening, Magwood said. So he proposed the program to Fleming.

"When I started with my company about 15 years ago it was really, really fringe," Magwood said.

"It's been shocking how quickly it's kind of moved to the point where it feels like now it's just bubbling under the surface...The planetary realities are making even people in the mainstream construction world, whether they want to or not, they really do need to pay attention to this stuff."

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