Aparna Dial, Mark McIntyre, Austin Oslock and Wendy Oslock won $40,000 to introduce the Ecosia search engine to Ohio State Computers. Credit: Courtesy of Austin Oslack

Last weekend, a group of Ohio State graduate students and their faculty adviser were awarded $40,000 in funding in the Smart Campus Challenge, a sustainability competition hosted by the Ohio State Energy Partners.

Their concept: to install Ecosia — a search engine where 80 percent of ad revenue generated by internet searches is used to fund organizations that plant trees around the world — as the default search engine onto 30,000 Ohio State campus computers.

The team, named Search for Trees, is composed of captain and MD/MBA student Wende Oslock, her husband and M.D./MPH student Austin Oslock, and medical student Mark McIntyre and are advised by Aparna Dial, director of Energy Services at Ohio State.

“Ecosia was developed in Germany, and from there it spread — most schools that use Ecosia are in Europe, as well as a few other schools across the world,” Wende Oslock said. “We will be the first school in America really promoting this as a widespread university initiative.”

The team plans to spend the $40,000 on different marketing initiatives, starting by partnering with other sustainability organizations at Ohio State and promoting Ecosia during the Time for Change events held the first week of April. Time for Change is a week of events that focuses on supporting sustainability initiatives and increasing environmental stewardship in the Ohio State community and around the world.

Their plans also include widespread advertisement campaigns on campus and through social media channels such as Facebook. The team plans to hire some support staff to manage programming and development, track usage, and handle public relations and social media.

“Ohio State will be the largest university [to adopt Ecosia] and due to the $40,000 in funding, it will be the most [organized] campaign,” Austin Oslock said. “The other universities that use Ecosia have been kind of grassroots-focused, but we’re really working with the medical center and the university to make some big changes.”

Ecosia’s background-search algorithm is based on Bing’s format, but that is basically where the similarities end. In fact, Ecosia offers the benefit of privacy features that today’s widely used search engines lack.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with using Google, and when you search for something, you might see that same thing advertised on your Facebook feed,” McIntyre said. “What’s happening there is essentially Google is selling your search information to companies. That’s one thing that Ecosia specifically doesn’t do. They don’t track your searches or location.”

Wende Oslock said one of the biggest pros to Ecosia is the protection of privacy because a lot of pertinent and sensitive information is stored on campus servers. Noting recent privacy concerns in the news, she said the privacy features with the search engine are “a step up” from Google “from a security standpoint, while aligning with our sustainability habits.”

Because Ecosia does not track location, Wende Oslock said searches might have to be more specific to capture the results the user is looking for. She said this can be easily rectified by adding the name of the city to the search terms.

But even more important is the environmental impact that the application of Ecosia at Ohio State hopes to have on the world.

The group estimated that with more than 30,000 desktop computers and many other personal devices with Ecosia installed, one search a day can help plant around 300,000 trees in a year, Wende Oslock said.

Dial expressed how much it has meant to her to support these students through this campaign.

“The human health is so inextricably linked to the health of the planet. We recognize that we can’t have healthy people without a healthy environment, so we are really looking at how we can use our resources to reduce our footprint,” Dial said. “To make that a reality for more people, this really fits in with our mission.”

Wende Oslock explained that most of the trees are planted in countries near the equator because that is where they are most effective at pulling carbon emissions from the air.

Austin Oslock also said they addressed any doubts about the effectiveness of Ecosia by researching and vetting all of the tree-planting organizations that Ecosia financially supports.

“We went through and researched all the different organizations they donate to, just to make sure all these tree-planting organizations are legitimate and they’re doing all the work they say they are,” he said. “We were just overall really impressed by the impact that Ecosia is making. They just hit 50 million trees planted worldwide last week, so it’s a pretty cool thing to be supporting.”

To learn more about the Ecosia initiative, visit its Facebook page OSU at Ecosia. To become an early adopter and install Ecosia on your personal devices, visit Ecosia.co/OSUTree.