What does is mean for a campus to be engaged in sustainable practices outside of the classroom? Going beyond simply being “green,” what would a college or university look like if the entirety of its campus were engaged in challenging itself to live by the working ethos of sustainability? There’s a burgeoning educational movement encouraging students, teachers and communities to focus on just this, and its being called the “living laboratory.”
What defines a living laboratory? According to Margo Flood, Chief Sustainability Official at Warren Wilson College, you won’t find the lab anywhere on campus — the living laboratory is the campus, and it looks like this:
At Warren Wilson College the concept of the liberal arts college is folded into a unique model combining academics, work, and service. In addition to following their regular liberal arts curriculum, all students must work 15 hours a week on crews that essentially run the campus, and must additionally complete a required number of service hours in order to graduate.
With what kind of work are these student crews tasked? Some crews learn sustainable livestock management by running the campus farm, which raises organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free livestock. Others maintain a garden that provides food for the school’s cafeteria. Other students work to manage and maintain the school’s 700-acre forest, learning how sustainable forestry principles can impact the health of the ecosystem. Some crews are tasked with assisting in construction of the school’s newest LEED certified buildings, others conduct greenhouse gas emissions inventories and look at energy consumption campus-wide. Still others are involved with analyzing the water quality of the Swannanoa River, which passes through the center of campus.
What do these hands-on work experience offer students? According to Flood, the skills students learn extend beyond just learning sustainable farming, building and forestry principles. These experiences encourage students to take theories of creating a sustainable community out of the classroom and into their work crews and the larger campus community. In this way students learn to develop their understanding of best practices. They are encouraged to question whether current methods actually are the best methods. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” says Flood. “So students are asking, ‘could we be doing something more?’ If a building isn’t energy efficient, they are asking ‘is it behavior? Is it the building?’”. In the living lab it seems that asking questions is just as important to the as finding solutions.
Through interacting with the living laboratory, students can become immersed in all aspects of running a sustainable community. They can see first-hand how, as Flood says, “when we are engaged with the choices we make, everything we do at work, in service and in the classroom can be part of a laboratory for ongoing sustainability research.” The concept of the living laboratory extends beyond theory and examines practice, encouraging us to question how we spend money in the community, to understand what sustainability means and asking each of us to question how we can take responsibility for it. It doesn’t just tell students what to do, it shows them the importance and the impact of making informed decisions in regards to the environment.
Not surprisingly, Flood says that students have a legacy of being the champions of the very best practices at Warren Wilson. When students learned that a second dining facility was being planned for campus, they drafted a proposal for it to be a vegetarian café. When a new dorm was being planned, a group of students came to administration to be involved in design team. The building is now LEED Platinum certified. “Students want to do the research,” says Flood, “this is what students are interested in now. And empowering them to have a voice and get involved is the best thing that any campus can do to advance the sustainability ethos.”
Rachel Harkai is a freelance writer who studied environmental science and creative writing at the University of Michigan. In addition to writing for local and national publications Rachel currently works as a Writer-in-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project.