York College Senior Strives to Save Environment with New Technology
Civil Engineering major Spencer Smith ’22 recently represented the nation at an international conference on climate change.
Spencer Smith ’22 doesn't like discussing politics. It often becomes a battle rather than a discussion, the York College of Pennsylvania senior says. “I'm of the firm belief that there's always a compromise.” That said, he's unyielding on two points: Climate change is real, and he can help.
“I feel like I should use my gifts to give back to others, and this is one of the largest battles of my generation—the fight against climate change,” he says. “I want to do what I can to help.”
Sustainability, Smith says, lies “in making sure that people know this is a man-made issue, and we need to do what we can to mitigate it so we don't suffer the consequences.”
“We're already seeing some of the effects of climate change, even though we predicted that it would be our kids, or our kids' kids, who would live through it,” he says. “If we keep kicking the can and don't take action, we're going to reach the point where we can no longer reverse the damages that have been done.”
His interest in engineering began with LEGO sets and creative video games. In high school, he participated for four years in Project Lead the Way, a STEM-intensive curriculum that focused his interest on civil engineering.
“I want to spend more of my time on the solution side of the work,” Smith says. “I don't really see myself working on policy, on a governmental level. I've always been more of a technology person. I want to get that technology into the hands of people so they can be more sustainable.”
York College emphasizes the environmental aspects of civil engineering, he says, which is exactly what he wanted.
Recently, he took a significant step forward in understanding the role of engineering in environmental sustainability from a global perspective.
Representing the U.S.
In November, Smith was one of 10 students chosen to represent the American Chemical Society at COP26, the 26th international gathering known formally as the Conference of the Parties, or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Glasgow, Scotland.
Smith says food production there emphasizes carbon neutrality through farm-to-table and water-to-table produce. Scotland doesn't use plastic bags; shoppers are expected to bring (or buy) their own reusable bags, he notes, and straws are rare.
“There are a lot of cultural differences—and that's the key to sustainability,” he says. “It has to be a social change, not a political one.”
At COP26, Smith took note of innovations in transportation. “Their entire fleet of buses is electric. They demonstrated their first hydrogen-fueled bus, which is great. And we used the trains every day,” he says. “Everything was a 10-minute walk from the train station, or there was a subway connection to where we wanted to go. Their public transportation is extremely robust.”
He attended demonstrations of an electric airplane engine, a “fully autonomous” automobile, a process converting manure into a biomass fuel, and “really cool tech from around the world.”
Other topics included carbon emissions—Smith says everyone was discussing possible solutions, such as pumping emissions into the ground to enrich soil or injecting it into concrete—and recycling.
“This is the first time that coal and oil and gas were specifically called out by name, which is a phenomenal step,” he says.
Part of the bigger picture
The conference was “a little overwhelming at first,” but Smith says he made it through in part because of the guidance of two York College chemistry professors, Drs. Keith Peterman, who retired in 2020, and Gregory Foy, who acted as group advisers.
“They've both been to numerous COPs,” Smith says. “They've been fantastic.”
Both professors have been instrumental in guiding Smith's college career, he notes—from general chemistry classes and class projects to sustainability ideas for the Student Senate and an educational trip to Costa Rica. He's also presented to students during some of Dr. Foy's classes, including a Zoom lecture he participated in while at COP26.
The professors also advocated for Smith when he served as Vice President of Student Senate and was chairperson of the ad-hoc Sustainability Committee. Through that role, he was accepted as a member of the President’s Task Force of Campus Sustainability (PTFCS) at York College. Smith worked primarily as a liaison between the student body and the Task Force.
Through his leadership of the Committee, the College was an official Earth Day Live 2020 and 2021 host. In 2020, that meant taking over the College’s Instagram account with Earth Day content, and in 2021, students hosted Speaking Green with Ted Talk-style lectures. The Committee also partnered with Dining Services to give students reusable tote bags instead of single-use plastic bags with their meals.
“That's how we're going to solve sustainability,” Smith says. “Together, by helping each other.”