How Wharton students are using an app to push for a sustainable campus

Through a Penn Green Fund grant, students in the Wharton School helped develop and pilot the Wharton Green Tracker App, meant to unite the campus’s sustainability community.

  Carmen Lau, a marketing major in the Wharton School and member of the Wharton Student Sustainability Advisory Board, is no sapling in the world of sustainability—her roots run deep.

Penn Sustainability
Students gather at an on-campus Penn Sustainability event. Penn Sustainability is hosting a series of ReThink Your Footprint engagement events through Oct. 19. 

“I think my whole life I’ve been generally interested in doing things that are good for the environment,” says Lau, a junior from Glen Burnie, Md. “In high school, what catalyzed my interest was when I helped form a gardening and sustainability club, and we got a grant to start a garden for education. We realized a lot of people would get to the grocery store and they’d know what a flower or an apple looks like, but have no idea what the process for growing them is.”

Intrigued, challenged, and motivated, she organized educational programming around the garden that would eventually be used as a tour site for elementary-school-age children in the community to learn more about food and sustainability. It’s this same green-thumb education initiative that carried her forward in her work this spring, alongside now-alumna Tiffany Yung, to lead a one-month test run of the Wharton Green Tracker App, a smartphone application funded by a Penn Green Fund grant.

Wharton Green Tracker App
A screen of the Wharton Green Tracker App, showing campus resources and a poll that engages users. Photo courtesy: Wharton Operations

The app, created by Philadelphia-based, mission-driven app development startup MilkCrate, took gamification incentive principles—like those used in step trackers—which, in combination with push notifications about sustainability events happening on campus, encouraged 100 participating Wharton students to engage with sustainability on campus. In practice, that meant having those students document when they took public transportation instead of a ride-sharing or taxi service, declined a plastic bag from a food truck, or recycled responsibly. For notification of events, they were informed of recycling and e-waste events, or simply nudged about the existence and location of a compost. 

Advertising events, Lau says, was what she found to be the most impactful of the app’s features. 

“Historically, [the sustainability community on campus] has been very fragmented,” she says. “This was a platform where you could post all your events in one place, where all the sustainability-interested people could go and learn more about initiatives. We thought about it more as an education tool.”

Lau says she and Yung gave MilkCrate feedback during the development process, to guide the substance of the app.

“They did a lot,” says David Mazzocco, associate director of sustainability and projects at Wharton, who oversaw the project and had the initial idea for the app. “They really stepped up and did a lot to help develop the app, in terms of content, and they worked hard to get the word out to have people sign up.”

The big-picture idea to find a new way to talk to students about sustainability is one that’s been germinating for a while, Mazzocco adds.

“It’s been an idea we’ve talked about on a larger level with other sustainability coordinators on campus and at [Facilities and Real Estate Services], to have better outreach with students, with some of the green goals that we have,” he says. “After this pilot, we’re talking about whether this is something we want to roll out further.”

The initial takeaway from the pilot, Mazzocco says, is that the gamification incentives do have potential, but may need to be fleshed out to engage participants regularly. What is important is to continue to have the easy-to-access space for knowledge about sustainability initiatives and tips on campus. 

Wharton Green Tracker
A screen of the Wharton Green Tracker App, showing a challenge notification issued to a user and a ranking. Photo courtesy: Wharton Operations

Mazzocco and Lau will talk more about the pilot’s findings at Penn Sustainability’s ReThink Your Footprint gathering on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at Huntsman Hall. Lunch will be provided.