A group performed a yoga sunrise salutation to kick off the program at Fullerton College. UCLA marked the day with panel discussions and art displays.
And at Santa Monica College, along with speeches from politicians, students invoked Dr. Seuss to teach kindergartners about protecting the environment.
The five colleges were among more than 1,500 schools and 300 other organizations that held events Thursday for Focus the Nation, a grass-roots effort to promote environmental protection.
The initiative was scheduled with an eye toward Super Tuesday next week, when 24 states are to hold presidential caucuses or primaries, in order to get voters and candidates thinking about global warming, organizers said.
Focus the Nation was founded in September 2006 by Eban Goodstein, a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., who said he was alarmed that his 16- and 19-year-old daughters were growing up amid an environment that seemed to be deteriorating.
"The sense of urgency kept getting ramped up," Goodstein said in a phone interview between events Thursday in New York. "Americans get that global warming is real, but very few people recognize the critical nature of the decisions that'll be made in the next few years."
Goodstein said Focus the Nation is less about individual "green" habits than it is about a national push to pass laws stemming fossil fuel use and about encouraging investment in energy-saving technology. But at some events Thursday, some organizers said they were having trouble just persuading students to pay attention.
Attendance was sparse at tables set up outside UCLA's student union that featured organic cotton T-shirts, laptops set up to calculate carbon footprints and free granola samples.
But inside the building at a session about the economy of global warming, about 50 people listened to a panel of professors and analysts discuss tradable carbon permits and the federal Energy Star power efficiency program.
At Loyola Marymount, a mound of plastic bottles from nearly 40 large recycling bins filled a pen the size of a small car, a representation of plastic waste created by students there each week.
Most students glanced at the display and kept walking, though several stopped to toss in bottles and ask questions.
At noon, students were handed free environmentally friendly aluminum bottles and T-shirts.
Although the university has won awards for its recycling program and often experiments with environmentally friendly options, the campus has far to go, said Colum Riley, an organizer and business graduate student.
To most students, environmental activism is a good cause, but they are too intimidated or unmotivated to join, Riley said. Several students said they had no idea what the bottle display was about and were too preoccupied to find out.
"Our school has stuff like this happening every day, and it's overwhelming when everyone's pretending that they're saving the world," said Camila Alvarez, a freshman and film major.
"There's still going to be a lot of trash when this is over," she said.
But after being plied with fresh orange juice and organic vegan cookies by organizers at Santa Monica College, freshman Eneida Merino said she felt newly inspired to start using energy-saving light bulbs, cut back her soap use and take shorter showers.
"I felt I wouldn't make a difference on my own, but now I know differently," she said.
More than 200 local kindergartners at the college's outdoor auditorium got a quick environmental lesson from the Lorax, a character in a Dr. Seuss fable about industrialized society destroying the environment.
In lieu of teach-ins, student organizers at Caltech in Pasadena posted information around a cafeteria analyzing the origins of the food and the energy required to transport it.
One suggestion for dining on a smaller environmental budget: eating locally caught fish covered in salsa made with grapefruit grown in university President Jean-Lou Chameau's backyard.