Thursday, June 25, 2009

Better Education

Last week I mentioned one of my heros, David Orr. He runs the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio and is responsible for the creation of their high performance building, The AJ Lewis Center.

What makes the building different?
It derived it's materials locally, cycles it's nutrients and runs on current solar power—producing more energy than it consumes. Yes, the upfront costs were greater and it took time to plan, but consider the total costs (annual operating costs, externalized costs, i.e. pollution, and hidden subsidies not used) and the building is a fraction the cost of a typical building.

More importantly, the building is more comfortable to be in, e.g. toxin-free. Most importantly, Oberlin uses the building as a teaching tool for it's students, from science to math, to history and economics.

What does it have to do with nature? It's modeled on how nature works.

The only thing crazy about the story is ten years after the building has been completed, there are not more buildings like this.

More on Orr:
David Orr argues for radical reform to our education. While nothing radical with that, Orr doesn't argue for change to better prepare a labor force for the global economy or to promote maximum upward mobility. Rather, Orr argues we've got to move past the Industrial Revolution and prepare students to create an economy that works on a planet with finite resources. In his words:

"The generation now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilize a world population which is growing at the rate of a quarter of a million each day; stabilize and then reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, which threaten to change the climate; protect biological diversity, now declining at an estimated rate of one hundred to two hundred species per day; reverse the destruction of rain forests, now being lost at the rate of one hundred and sixteen square miles or more each day; and conserve soils, now being eroded at the rate of sixty-five million tons per day. Those who follow us must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to utilize solar energy in all its forms. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long term. They must begin the great work of repairing, as much as possible, the damage done to the earth in the past two hundred years of industrialization. And they must do all of this while addressing worsening social and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda."*

*from "Environmental Literacy: Education as if the Earth Mattered."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last week I headed east for a wedding in Long Island. Needing an excuse to spend more time in NY, I scheduled a few school visits. While the schools were neat and the wedding a fantastic party, the highlight may have been a stop en route- Oberlin College in Ohio.

Not only did I get to see one of my heros, educator David Orr, and tour one of the highest performing buildings ever built, I was treated to the best damn asparagus of my life.

Just off Oberlin College's campus lies a 175-acre former commodity crop farm recently given new life. A few years ago, when housing developers nearly turned the depleted farmland into a cookie-cutter subdivision, Oberlin College stepped in and saved the day. The result: The New Agrarian Center at The George Jones Memorial Farm, a restored prairie and wetland with a small farm that grows real food.

The land had been a soybean and corn farm reliant on large doses of fossil fuels to make it go- from the production to the manufacturing to the distribution of processed foods. In the process, wildlife and jobs were eliminated, soil eroded and the air and water polluted.

Today, the land provides animal habitat, cleans local water, sequesters carbon and, in only a couple of acres, grows $60,000 worth of vegetables a year (by comparison, the same amount of land will yield less than $1,500 worth of corn). Just as importantly, it's a teaching tool. College kids intern on the farm and Cleveland elementary kids arrive by the busload to get their hands dirty. They learn about farming and ecology hands-on and are treated to some things kids don't get much of these days—real, local food, and knowledge of where it comes from.

I learned most of this from Director Brad (who pointed out the blue herons) and Educational Programmer Evelyn (who didn't mind me eating two asparagus for every one I picked)....Thank you!

P.S. I'll be back with the high-tech's closer to a living tree than it is to a traditional building.