Date November 7, 2023
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Brown student’s class project generates excitement, energy at campus gym

The Nelson Fitness Center is piloting the use of energy-generating workout equipment, thanks to a proposal developed by junior Elina Pipa as part of a Climate Solutions course.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The next time a visitor hops on a cardio machine at Brown University’s Nelson Fitness Center, they might generate more than sweat.

Strategically placed across the gym’s footprint are six new pieces of equipment — two treadmills, two stair climbers and two rowing machines — that capture human exertion and convert it into usable electricity, offsetting energy consumption.

The idea to install the equipment in the Nelson Fitness Center emanated from a class at Brown in Fall 2022. Student Elina Pipa was enrolled in ENVS0465, a Climate Solutions course taught by Stephen Porder, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology who also serves as associate provost for sustainability at Brown.

Pipa was drawn to the course’s solution- and policy-centered approach, which felt like the perfect opportunity to combine her academics — she is pursuing a double-concentration in economics, and international and public affairs — with her years-long interest in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Detail shot of the machine's info panel
In addition to standard workout data like speed and distance, the new machines display meaningful environmental impact metrics, like watts generated per workout.

“I really try to approach my studies through the lens of sustainability and what my two disciplines can do for fighting climate change,” said Pipa, a junior. “This class didn’t just outline the problem — it inspired action.”

Students began working on the course’s final project before the semester's midpoint given of the level of academic rigor involved in researching, developing and writing a policy brief that suggested a realistic climate solution in a specific context.

As an international student from Greece, Pipa said she felt like she wasn’t perfectly equipped to implement a policy in the United States, but developing policy for her home country presented too many logistical hurdles in a short timeframe. Realizing she would have the most success in focusing on what she knows best, she directed her efforts hyper-locally: Brown’s campus.

Turning ideas into action

Before committing to the idea for the fitness equipment, Pipa put in hours of work to ensure it was feasible. Discovering a company that commercially creates the equipment she had in mind was a huge win, as was learning that leasing a handful of machines was economically viable.

When she floated the idea to Porder, he was enthusiastic.

“Elina’s project was innovative, practical and will reduce carbon emissions and increase awareness,” Porder said. “That’s right in the sweet spot.”

For the policy proposal, Pipa interviewed 100 students about their usage behaviors at the gym and gauged their interest in adding the new equipment; 100% of respondents said they would either like to see it implemented or were indifferent to it, but she received no negative responses. Her paper included the survey results and original data analysis.

Working with an engineer to quantify the impact the machines would have on reducing carbon emissions, Pipa collected data on the gym’s electricity and HVAC systems to create a comparison of the facility’s current power consumption vs. what could be produced and offset by the addition of the new equipment.

She found that the machines would offset around 2% of emissions from the entire building, including the pool, which uses a significant amount of electricity for heating and cooling.

“It’s basically equivalent to the energy output of all the solar panels on the roof of the Nelson Fitness Center,” Pipa said. “It was really cool to discover that the impact wouldn’t be insignificant.”

Workers move an equipment box into the gym
Workers unload one of six pieces of new energy-generating cardio equipment now installed at the Nelson Fitness Center.

Once Pipa completed her report, she and Porder convened meetings with Raymond Grant, associate director of athletics and recreation, and Vice President for Athletics and Recreation M. Grace Calhoun to discuss the proposal, which they embraced enthusiastically.

“This project honed in on the fact that Brown is not only a hub of wonderful creativity, but it has the right people — whether it’s the students, professors or anyone who works here — who will help you turn your ideas into reality,” Pipa said.

It took several months of collaboration, more feasibility studies, budgeting and logistics, but Pipa’s idea was finally realized in late October, nearly a year after its genesis. The equipment will be used for six weeks and evaluated for durability and student feedback.

“It’s so cool to see a student’s idea come to life,” said Fitness and Wellness Manager Amy Dean, who helped oversee the installation. “The Nelson Center has been creating a better, more welcoming and sustainable environment for students, and this project really falls in line with that vision.”

“ This project honed in on the fact that Brown is not only a hub of wonderful creativity, but it has the right people — whether it’s the students, professors or anyone who works here — who will help you turn your ideas into reality. ”

Elina Pipa Class of 2025

‘Hope for Brown and beyond’

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, Pipa hopes the six-week pilot program will raise awareness and inspire students to make sustainable choices.

Most people are able to understand what a gallon of gasoline is and how much it costs, but that’s not necessarily the case for kilowatt hours — how energy use is quantified. Pipa said the new machines, which include software that shows users how much energy they’ve generated during a workout, could remedy that.

“If you see that you’ve been running on the treadmill for 40 minutes and you’ve only produced half an hour’s worth of powering a light bulb, it gives you a concrete perspective of what your energy use means, because now you’ve worked hard for it,” she said.

Box containing stepmill sits in the gym
The equipment will be in the gym for six weeks, over which staff will collect information on its use and survey students to see whether permanent installation is viable.

If the pilot is successful, Pipa imagines facilitating community-building events centered around the equipment and the values it inherently promotes — think a “run off your climate anxiety” race or events in which teams can compete to see who can generate the most power over a set amount of time.

It’s exactly the type of initiative that Porder said the world needs right now.

“In this case, it is only through action that we will get where we need to go and build a better future,” Porder said. “Anyone can be part of the solution — in fact, it will only be a solution if we hear voices from all walks of life, and bring everyone’s unique talents to bear on our wicked environmental challenges.”

In addition to Pipa’s studies, she serves as a teaching assistant for classes on environmental economics and public policy, and she’s a member of the executive board of the Sustainable Food Initiative, a student-run organization at Brown dedicated to food system sustainability. Now, she’s more optimistic about the future than she was a year ago.

“This experience showed me that there are adults around us that care about our voice, our ideas and our initiatives to promote climate action,” Pipa said. “It gives me a lot of hope for Brown and beyond.”