Environmental Studies Center to Place Oberlin at the Forefront of Environmental Education

The groundbreaking for Oberlin's Environmental Studies Center is set for next summer, thanks to a $3 million gift from Cleveland philanthropist Adam Lewis, President Nancy S. Dye recently announced. The building will be constructed south of Harkness Co-op.

With the opening of the center in September 1998, Oberlin will realize a dream on the part of faculty and students who, as early as 1981, envisioned the campus as the site of one of the most advanced ecologically designed buildings in America. Environmental studies is one of Oberlin's fastest-growing majors.

"The building of the center is part of a worldwide movement to create a human future that is both ecologically and culturally sustainable," said environmental studies chairman and Professor David Orr. "Such a future will require rethinking the design of buildings and landscapes, the use of materials and energy, the process of design, and, most important, the substance and process of education."

"By some estimates, humankind will build more in the next few decades than in all of previous history. Our goal is to create a practical model of ecological design that reduces environmental impact to the point where buildings cast virtually no shadow on the human prospect," said Orr, whom The New York Times called one of the eight "environmental gurus" in the U.S. "Oberlin intends to set a standard for new construction and renovation while pioneering the educational potential of ecological design as a connecting thread in a liberal arts curriculum. This is a tall order, but anything less just would not be worth the effort."

President Dye agreed. She foresees the center as a living laboratory, drawing together students and faculty members from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to identify problems and find solutions.

The Environmental Studies Center is being designed by William McDonough + Partners, an architectural firm known for its "green" architecture. Along with an extraordinary group of technical consultants--including NASA, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Ocean Arts, Inc.--the architects intend to create a building that will function like a tree, accruing and storing its own solar power, using energy only when people are on site, and purifying the rainwater caught in its cisterns.

Many Obies have also been involved in the project. For the last 15 years, Oberlin faculty and staff members, area residents, and more than 150 students have worked to develop the principles, program, and site-selection criteria that set the parameters for the project's design team.

Last year alone, more than 60 Oberlin students received academic credit for projects related to the new center. Plans also are being made to develop related faculty-student research projects and to connect students to craft skills and wood forestry through the design and execution of furnishings and artifacts for the center.

"Without a lot of fanfare, a paradigm shift has taken place in education," President Dye pointed out. "Liberal arts used to be thought of as a way to provide skills to master the environment. Now students are being taught to think in terms of how to live in harmony with nature, instead of controlling or overpowering it."

--Betty Gabrielli

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