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ROLLSS History

Students at garden party standing in front of raised garden bed

Sustainability is not a new concept at Stanford. The university offers a rich variety of classes that address energy, the environment, and related subjects. Internationally renowned faculty and researchers conduct cutting-edge work on technology related to energy, water, and the environment more broadly. Beyond the classroom and the laboratory, Stanford telegraphs its interest in sustainability in many ways, from its dining halls’ waste-minimization practices, to a campus-wide sustainability effort called Cardinal Green, to a new university power plant that stresses energy efficiency and aims to leverage renewable energy. 

The Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford is intended to complement these academic and institutional sustainability efforts by providing a different sort of platform: a place where undergraduates can wrestle, day in and day out, with the possibilities and the difficulties of living their lives in a more sustainable way.

Roble Resident Fellow Jeffrey Ball, a writer whose work focuses on energy and the environment, conceived of and organized the dorm-based sustainability initiative that has become ROLLSS. As a result of discussions with a broad array of sustainability-focused faculty, researchers, and staff members across Stanford, ROLLSS today is supported by approximately a dozen Stanford institutes, schools, departments, offices, and student groups. 

ROLLSS began in earnest in the 2016-17 academic year with a number of robust elements:


Student cutting pizza

• Two undergraduate seminars were taught in the dorm. One explored the sustainability of the food system. The other conducted a “lifecycle analysis” of Roble: it measured the dorm’s environmental footprint, taking into account such factors as energy, water, transportation, and waste.

Hard Earth, a biweekly speaker series featuring Stanford graduate students, spanned the year and will continue in future years.

• A group of Roble residents who feel passionately about sustainability planned and carried out an array of sustainability-focused activities in the dorm. Among them: redesigning Roble’s biweekly Friday-evening barbecues to reduce the amount of waste they produce; organizing a competition to encourage residents to save water by taking “Navy showers”; and holding a “zero-waste” competition in which residents, over a weekend, competed to see who could generate the least amount of waste.

Also during the 2016-17 academic year, ROLLSS brought a number of physical improvements to Roble. An organic garden, funded and built by Stanford’s Residential & Dining Enterprises, opened on Roble’s east side. A seminar room in Roble was renovated, with funding from Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, to accommodate the sustainability courses.

Now, ROLLSS is expanding in new ways. During the 2017-18 academic year, one of Roble’s main public spaces, its game room, will be renovated into a “maker space” focused on sustainability and art. And starting in fall 2017, ROLLSS will benefit from a significant infusion of additional brainpower and enthusiasm. Eleven Stanford undergraduates have been chosen from a large group of applicants to pre-assign into Roble as Roble Sustainability Leaders. One leader will live on each of Roble’s 11 halls, helping to catalyze involvement in sustainability by Roble’s residents, undertaking special projects that seek to deepen sustainability in the house, and taking part in a variety of special sustainability-oriented educational activities. In addition, a Stanford PhD student has been chosen to serve for the 2017-18 academic year as the Roble Graduate Sustainability Fellow. That student will live in Roble, working with Roble’s resident fellows, the sustainability leaders, and the dorm’s student staff to deepen and broaden ROLLSS. 

Lake Lagunita at sunrise

The 2017-18 academic year will be extraordinarily exciting for ROLLSS. Roble, which opened to students in 1918, will celebrate its centenary in 2018. It is the oldest continuously operating dorm at Stanford, and the 2017-18 year will feature a variety of centenary celebrations involving students, alumni, and others in the Stanford community. Sustainability, and ROLLSS in particular, will be a key component of the celebrations. Meanwhile, Hard Earth, the ROLLSS graduate-student speaker series, will continue. And the range of activities in Roble that allow students to wrestle with the opportunities and challenges of sustainability will expand.

Through ROLLSS, Roble is gearing up to become a model of sustainability in its second century.