09/16/2010 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Did They Do That? Students Find $350 Million in Savings Over the Summer

Remember when a summer job meant scooping ice cream at the local Dairy Queen? Not anymore. This year, a crop of 51 bright young business students found $350 million worth of business savings over their summer break.

As members of Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps, these future business leaders were in search of energy savings in lighting and ventilation systems, data centers and retail spaces. And find them they did. Working at companies across the country like Adidas, Hospital Corporation of America, JCPenney and Procter & Gamble, the EDF Climate Corps fellows found enough energy savings to power 60,000 homes, and greenhouse gas emissions savings that would be like taking 67,000 SUVs off the road.

So right now you might be scratching your head, asking, "How did they do that in just 10 weeks?" Certainly they had specialized training, strong financial skills, and a laser focus on energy efficiency. And if you met just one of them, you'd know that their excitement level was over the top. But as young people, they also brought the right mix of youthful ignorance and arrogance to their excitement.

Take, for example, Jen Snook. An MBA student at Duke University. Jen embarked on her Climate Corps fellowship at AT&T with no idea what she mind find. After just a few weeks on the job, she found that AT&T's equipment rooms are lighted roughly half the time, but occupied less than 10% of the time. Jen calculated that by installing occupancy sensors, AT&T could cut its energy use up to 80% across 100 million square feet, saving hundreds of millions of kilowatt hours annually.

Or take Dylan Hedrick, an MBA student at Rice University, who worked with ServiceMaster on lighting upgrades and computer power systems at the company's headquarters and branch locations for subsidiaries like TruGreen and American Home Shield. Dylan found $495,000 in potential savings and almost 8 million kilowatt hours/year in possible energy savings. But with a young man's arrogance, he worried that his ideas would be forgotten when he left for school in the fall, so he enlisted the help of a new ServiceMaster manager to make sure that his legacy would be realized.

Or Sarah Will. After graduating from Bainbridge Graduate Institute with an MBA in Sustainable Business, Sarah spent her summer at sporting goods retailer REI, where she uncovered almost $900,000 and 6.5 million kilowatt hours in annual savings. Thankfully, Sarah wasn't daunted by the common wisdom that REI had already harvested most of its energy efficiency opportunities.

When you're young and idealistic and excited to make a difference, you're not afraid to question long-held assumptions, you don't even realize that you might be crossing the kind of organizational barriers that hold most of us back, and you believe to your core in the importance of your mission. And when that happens, you really can change the world. Jen, Dylan and Sarah certainly did.