Focus Group Pic
UW-River Falls students, staff, faculty and other officials celebrate the announcement that the university placed first in a statewide competition to give away kits to make off-campus housing where students live more energy efficient. UWRF photo.

UW-River Falls wins state sustainability challenge

Focus on Energy contest helps off-campus housing be more sustainable

Dec. 7, 2023 - University of Wisconsin-River Falls students and staff worked hard in recent months to spread the word about the importance of sustainable practices, and their effort has resulted in a first-place designation in a statewide competition. 

UW-River Falls won the Higher Education Kit Challenge, a competition sponsored by Focus on Energy. A total of 11 colleges and universities in Wisconsin participated in the competition that took place from July 1 through Oct. 31. Focus on Energy officials presented UW-River Falls with the award during a ceremony Thursday. 

Students with the Sustainability Office combined forces with university faculty and staff to give 140 kits – which were free to receive – containing various items intended to reduce energy usage in off-campus housing where students live. That figure was compared to the number of off-campus students at UW-River Falls. UW-River Falls wound up with the highest percentage compared to competing schools. 

“So, we won,” Sustainability Coordinator Mark Klapatch-Mathias said to applause from those attending the ceremony. “The UWRF team did a lot of work promoting this opportunity, and it paid off.”

The award includes $5,000 from Focus on Energy that UW-River Falls can use toward any sustainability-related effort on campus.

Heather Feigum, program manager with Focus on Energy, praised UW-River Falls students and staff for their hard work distributing sustainability kits. Those kits totaled 7,420 kilowatt hours in reduced energy annually, she said. 

“The energy savings from the kits distributed here cover one house for more than one year,” she said. “Taking one house off the grid for more than one year is a significant accomplishment.”

While he appreciates the award, Klapatch-Mathias said educating people about sustainability through the contest is the most gratifying part of winning. 

“The awareness about sustainability is the biggest part of this,” he said. “These measures will save people money in the long run, and for them to get these items for free knowing that it will save them money is a really great approach. It makes them more willing to give this a try.”

State Sen. Rob Stafsholt, who represents the area that includes UW-River Falls, praised students, staff and faculty for their work giving away kits and educating others about the importance of sustainable practices.

“We lead by example,” Stafsholt said. “We don’t just tell people what they should be doing, but we do it ourselves, and this is a great example of that.”

The kits people received contain a variety of items intended to reduce energy usage, such as LED light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, efficient light switch covers, and low-energy nightlights. Items that make homes more energy efficient can be expensive and out of the financial reach of most college students, and providing them for free was an enjoyable aspect of the project, said Lauren Schmelzer, a senior majoring in environmental science from St. Louis Park, Minn. 

“One of the best parts of this is that it makes sustainable practices more affordable to more people,” Schmelzer said. “In the process, they are learning about different ways of living more sustainably.”

Amber Rappl, a senior biology and biotechnology double major from Mount Calvary, said their Sustainability Office colleagues work hard to educate students and others about why sustainability matters. The competition provided a means of doing that, they said. 

“We were motivated to give away as many kits as we could,” Rappl said. “We tried to be in as many places as we could, telling people about the kits. Word of mouth really helped us.”

When Rappl, Schmelzer and other students working to give away kits received a message from Klapatch-Mathias that they had won the contest, they thought he was joking. Then they learned that they had indeed placed first. 

“It was very rewarding,” Rappl said. “But the most important part of this is more people learning about sustainability and implementing it in their lives.”

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