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Campus Nitrogen Budget

Suzanne Savanick, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, ssavanic@carleton.edu

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Explicitly link your college or university operations with local ecology. In this study, students use a tool from urban ecology, the nitrogen budget, to research the inputs, outputs and subsystem transfers of nitrogen on the college or university campus. Through this research, the nutrient budget frames campus environmental assessments with ecological metrics.

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Learning Goals

Students will understand the significance and human dimensions of the nitrogen cycle in an urban area. Students will understand the effect of campus operations and sustainability efforts on the nitrogen budget.

Context for Use

This is a major undertanking by students to assess the campus nitrogen budget. It could be a class project by groups of students over a semester or by a student as part of an independent study. The data could be used to evaluate the effect of campus sustainability efforts, energy efficiency options, and other campus policies.
Campus Nitrogen Budget. Adapted from (Savanick 2004). Inputs and outputs to the campus N budget are shown via arrows; dashed lines represent a transfer between subsystems.

Teaching Materials

Savanick, S (2005) Guidelines for College-Level Nitrogen Budgeting (Microsoft Word 138kB Aug12 05).

Savanick, S. (2004) Campus Ecology: Bridging the Gap Between Sustainability Efforts and Urban Ecology. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Minnesota. Chapter three is an example of a nitrogen budget for the University of Minnesota.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The difficulty of compiling the data depends on the type and accessibiltiy of records. Collecting data on an academic or fiscal year may be more reasonable, depending on how the college keeps data.
  • Have Students Brainstorm the Campus Links to Nitrogen Budget:
  • Have Students Pick Topics or Subtopics for Individual or Group Research
  • Have/Needs Assessment (Birnbaum, 2004): Have students discuss:
    • What they know about their topic?
    • What they need to know about their topic?
  • Develop Research Plan
    • Have students assign tasks to group members
    • What are the intermediary steps of the project?
    • Include deadlines and timelines for project completion.
  • Keep Good Records Have students log all telephone and email communcations with staff in one notebook. Have students keep organized by using file and email folders, as well as keep track of data on a spreadsheet program.
  • Report Progress . One half of the way through the course, have student report on their activities to date. For individual student projects, have students meet with faculty each week to report.
  • Report Findings. Have students report findings both orally and written. Have students prepare an executive summary of their research for campus decision-makers. Invite campus decision-makers to review the presentations.


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Assessment Rubrics:

References and Resources

Baker, L., Diane Hope, Ying Xu, Jennifer Edmonds, and Lisa Lauver (2001) Nitrogen Balance for the Central Arizona-Phoenix (CAP) Ecosystem Ecosystems 4, 582-602.

Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research is the site for one of the National Science Foundation funded Long-Term Ecological Research site in an urban area.

Savanick, S. (2004) Campus Ecology: Bridging the Gap Between Sustainability Efforts and Urban Ecology. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Minnesota.

The Environmental Literacy Council has more information on the Nitrogen Cycle.