The Environment and Oberlin: An Update

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Education, Research, and Outreach

If the Lewis Center is intended to be a “building that teaches,” then a key measure of its success should be the learning opportunities it provides students. Already, the building and its landscape have proved their value as a hands-on laboratory for studying the principles of ecological design across disciplines, from biology to dance and from economics to computer science and math. Last fall we introduced a practicum that focuses entirely on the Lewis Center as a medium to study ecological design. The building has become the topic of private readings, summer fellowships and winter-term and work-study projects. I supervised eight independent student projects last semester on the data monitoring system and Living Machine, and I am currently supervising five summer research fellows engaged in building-related projects.

For upper-level students, the Lewis Center offers unique opportunities for researching ecological technologies. Honors students, for instance, are working with me to develop a new technique for monitoring whole ecosystem metabolism in the Living Machine and to test hypotheses regarding the effect of plant growth on patterns of water flow in the marsh. Finally, the data-gathered by the monitoring system mentioned earlier represents an investment that will allow generations of students to assess the long-term evolution in the performance of buildings and landscapes as integrated ecological systems—the kind of research opportunity reserved normally for graduate-level study.
In addition to its value for Oberlin students, the Lewis Center increasingly serves as a nexus and inspiration for local, regional, and national dialogue on key environmental issues. More than 8,000 visitors have toured the facility in the last two years.

Organizations ranging from the National Science Foundation to the Institute for Ecological Economics have funded workshops hosted here. The Lewis Center has also catalyzed the creation of several regional groups, including the Cleveland Green Building Coalition, the Ecological Design Innovation Center, and the Oberlin Design Initiative. These organizations are applying principles of ecological design to architecture, urban planning, and sustainable agriculture across northeast Ohio. It is quite possible that the future of architecture in Cleveland, farming in Lorain County, and development in downtown Oberlin will be tangibly different as a result of lessons learned at Oberlin’s innovative facility.

Judging the success of a project with such ambitious and diverse goals requires sophisticated and multifaceted analysis. The data that I have shared here indicate that the center has already achieved a wide range of objectives. But it is important to remember that the Lewis Center will always be a work in progress; long-term success is contingent upon the voracity with which we pursue opportunities for minimizing energy and material use and for maximizing educational potential. And as important as performance statistics may be, equally important are the experiences of James McConaghie and others for whom safe and healthy environments are often out of reach.

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