How the Environment Center Came to Be

It was Fall of 2020. I was preparing to teach the Senior Practicum class for the Environmental Studies major. Typically, seniors engage with an off-campus partner for a hands-on project. But this was not a typical semester.

It was, after all, the fall of 2020. Half the class was attending remotely; we couldn’t ride in a van for a field trip with more than 4 people (masked and huddling behind dividers).

In our first class meeting (on Zoom), we decided to stay close to home, and examine some unused areas of Elizabeth Campus. We chose a book to read together, Nature’s Last Hope by Douglas Tallamy. The focus of the class became biodiversity preservation in urban and suburban areas.

Seniors (those not studying remotely) tour the site in fall of 2020

Our students worked hard. Those who were on site took soil samples and conducted surveys in the neighborhood. Those working remotely completed GIS maps and catalogued images from trail cameras. In the end, we had a full picture of a neglected corner of campus that contained both human and natural history, an impressive array of biodiversity for its size, and great potential to serve the college and the community.

One of several maps the students used to analyze and evaluate the Environment Center site.

In the final weeks of the semester, the students presented their ideas to faculty, staff, administrators, and community stakeholders. And that’s when the magic really began.

A group of faculty members – Collins, Peters, and O’Neill – got very excited about the vision the students had painted. Our natural science faculty had struggled with finding field sites for student work, and our college was seeking low-cost good-news projects.

In January of 2021, as the college was recovering from a cyberattack on our system and the start of the semester was delayed due to local COVID levels, this faculty group (plus me) got busy. We met, created PowerPoints, refined the students’ vision, and booked an appointment with the Dean. We explained our idea for the Environment Center – an interdisciplinary enterprise that would foster hands-on research for faculty and students and create learning space for classes of all kinds.

The Dean suggested we speak with the President’s cabinet. The President suggested we speak with the Board of Trustees. We PowerPointed our way all the way to the top — and our proposal was approved! The land was set aside for use in student and faculty research and teaching, and a few board members even gave donations to help us with startup expenses. The Environment Center was born!

Seniors posing on a pile of wood chips at the Environment Center
Seniors celebrate their accomplishments in spring of 2021
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