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ULSF | Association of University Leaders For A Sustainable Future

Volume 4, Number 1 : October 2000

Partnerships: Allegheny College is Transforming NW Pennsylvania

By Eric Pallant

Allegheny College - a liberal arts, undergraduate college of 1,900 students - had a choice. It could look on with academic disinterest as the economy and environment around it deteriorated, or it could roll up its sleeves and offer its assistance. Fortunately, it chose the latter. Allegheny is located in Meadville, Pennsylvania - a rural town of 13,900 at the center of a rustbelt polygon comprised of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Erie, and Youngstown. The collective economies of the region headed south from the 1960s to the 1980s, and Meadville's went with them. Several large industries left Meadville in the early and mid-1980s. By the late 1980s unemployment levels exceeded 20% and today the number of children living below the poverty line is still greater than 30%.

The physical environment of Northwest Pennsylvania is uniquely pristine. French Creek runs 120 miles from its headwaters in western New York, to the Allegheny River in Franklin, PA. Along the way it is home to 27 species of freshwater mussels and more than 80 species of fish - several of them endemic, endangered and threatened. The watershed is comprised of a still active but declining dairy industry. The slow demise of dairy farms for nearly a century has given rise to hardwood forests in the area that produces some of the best timber in the world. But rural poverty has meant that landowners are sometimes easy prey for less than scrupulous logging operators. At the city and township level, not every community has been able to afford the construction of modern sewer facilities in a timely fashion, and French Creek's biota is threatened by dated sewers, aging septic systems, poor logging practices, and cows that trample riparian zones.

Following more than a decade of experience in teaching environmental studies using hands-on, student-centered and investigative teaching techniques, the Environmental Science Department at Allegheny College created the Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED) in July 1997. CEED was quickly joined by faculty from the departments of Environmental Science, Biology, Economics, Political Science, and Art, and in very short order came to focus on nine projects that serve and strengthen the communities around the college (see Table 1).

Project

# students working
(min. 1 sem.)

# community partners
# community participants
Creek Connections
42
68
5,697
Environmental Curriculum
8
18
4,553
Strategic Environmental Management
26
17
80
Entreprenuership for Sustainability
70
18
333
Art & Environment
72
17
551
Meadville Community Energy Project
46
21
364
NW PA Sustainable Forestry Initiative
62
13
594
Visioning & Community Revitalization
46
32
624

CEED's goals are to promote the practice of innovative environmental education for all ages and abilities, to encourage environmental stewardship, and to support economic revitalization based on environmentally sound business practices. The challenge for CEED is to work with the community toward a forward-thinking vision for the region that is both economically inspiring and environmentally sustainable. CEED's objective, therefore, is to expand its efforts along eight important fronts: watershed protection, educational outreach, sustainable industry, sustainable visioning, sustainable agriculture and landscape ecology, sustainable energy, sustainable forestry and environmental justice.

Initially, CEED grew out of classroom activities. Faculty felt the best way to teach environmental problem-solving was by placing students in situations where they actually had to try to solve them. Faculty, in collaboration with community partners, continue to select most of the problems that students work on. Students are given the opportunity to work in the community through classes, seminars, internships, work-study jobs and independent study projects. The by-words for CEED are collaboration and action. This commitment to activism appealed to several foundations, most notably The Heinz Family Endowments, R.K. Mellon Foundation and the Pennsylvania Link-to-Learn Technology Testbeds program, which supplied start-up funding.

CEED is involved in too many projects to describe them all in detail. On average 150 Allegheny students each year spend at least one semester working on sustainable development in NW Pennsylvania in collaboration with more than 100 community partners. I encourage readers to look over our Website (http://ceed.allegheny.edu) or subscribe to our biannual newsletter. I will describe two exemplary projects here.

CREEK CONNECTIONS

Fundamental to environmental protection in NW Pennsylvania is stewardship of French Creek. The Creek is the most biodiverse stream in the state, but more than 95% of riverfront property is privately held, much of it by politically conservative landowners opposed to protecting the creek by land purchases or federal legislation. Though there are several ways CEED is approaching the issues of watershed protection, one of the most successful is a watershed education initiative that actually predates CEED by two years: Creek Connections.

Creek Connections, formerly the French Creek Environmental Education Project (FCEEP), has forged an effective partnership between Allegheny College and regional K-12 schools to turn the French Creek Watershed in Northwest Pennsylvania and Western New York - in addition to waterways in the Pittsburgh area - into outdoor environmental laboratories. Emphasizing an investigation of local waterways, this project involves a hands-on, inquiry-based, natural science education for 33 secondary schools and 52 teachers (1999-2000 school year).

Allegheny College staff and students provide the framework and assistance for school-based investigative research in local watersheds. Equipment and teacher development is provided at a teacher-student summer workshop. School classes or clubs then begin to conduct water quality tests at their local field site at least once every three weeks. All data is compiled onto the Creek Connections web site for all schools and the public to review. Using a CEED provided equipment stipend, participating classes also design and implement independent field research projects on their local waterways. The culminating event of each year is the Student Research Symposium, held in April, when more than 500 participating students from across the region convene to share their research findings with each other and the public.

Creek Connections has been so successful that currently only half of the participating teachers come from Northwest Pennsylvania, with the remaining half from the Pittsburgh area (including 10 teachers from inner-city school districts in Pittsburgh). To date, Creek Connections has worked with more than 6,400 students. Seven teacher workshops were held during the 1999-2000 school year. One training workshop was held for senior citizens in the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EASI). Two "Drinking Water Discovery Days" were held for senior citizens and high schools students to attend, allowing them to learn about drinking water issues and tour a water authority together. Creek Connections has created a successful equipment loaning program called Watershed Activity Modules and continues to expand the watershed topics that these modules cover.

The net result is that thousands of students, their teachers, classmates, and families become intimately involved in the streams and watersheds near their houses and schools. The future generation of community leaders and activists collaborate with Allegheny students and faculty in ongoing, year-long investigations before they graduate from high school (for some, before they finish elementary school). This sets the Creek Connections experience apart from more typical environmental education which might only last a day or a unit of classroom time. Creek Connections students measure water quality parameters every three weeks throughout the year and create their own individualized projects to prepare for the end of the year symposium. The educational impact is long lasting.

NORTHWEST PENNSYLVANIA WOODLAND ASSOCIATION

About 50% of Northwest Pennsylvania is covered by maturing forests. In Crawford County, where Meadville is the county seat, there are 301,000 acres of forest and 15 to 20 operating sawmills in a region known as the "black cherry capital of the world." Four-fifths of the forested acreage is owned by individual landowners. This means individual contracts need to be drawn up between cutters and landowners for every timber sale. Landowners are offered much needed cash, often less than market value, and are unaware that money spent on a consulting forester to recommend appropriate cutting techniques and reasonable sales figures will pay off in the long run. High grading of top quality timber and shoddy logging operations are common phenomena.

In the case of protecting the watershed around French Creek, training grade schoolers would not be terribly efficient, so CEED focused on educating landowners. Allegheny students began the process as part of their class work. They gathered data to estimate the quantity and location of forest land, the quality and age of regional forests, the median size of land holdings, the economic benefits of timber harvesting and the rate of cutting, which is not sustainable at current rates of extraction. Then they hosted a series of workshops and seminars and invited all the key constituencies: landowners, consulting foresters, sawmill operators, respected logging companies and government foresters. CEED hosted outside speakers and prepared pamphlets, posters and webpages. Students, faculty and CEED-hosted experts spoke with landowners about sustainable forest management practices, pest control (deer densities in NW Pennsylvania are quite high), how to hire a consulting forester, how to choose a timber company, legal issues, replanting techniques, management to optimize for wildlife and marketing strategies for hardwoods.

The series of meetings was so successful that, within two years of beginning this research, CEED conceived of and created an independent coalition of landowners called the Northwest Pennsylvania Woodland Association (NWPWA). Its current membership includes more than 70 landowners, encompassing about 10,000 acres of forest. In October 2000, CEED and NWPWA are collaborating to host a regional meeting to promote third-party forest certification for landowners in New York, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The certification will guarantee that ascribing members will manage their lands sustainably and the entire chain of custody, including sawmill operators and furniture makers, will track their timber so consumers can be assured that the products they are purchasing have been approved by an international certification organization. CEED's work towards forest product certification is one of the few examples of success with small, private woodlot owners.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

CEED's approach to sustainable community development is comprehensive. CEED demonstrates for area citizens and regional leaders that economic and environmental decisions can work hand in hand to foster economic vitality and improved quality of life. Towards this end CEED co-hosts a quarterly pollution prevention roundtable for 50 area businesses to share best practices in strategic environmental management. CEED has prepared several tours, brochures and webpages for the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau promoting ecotourism as a means of generating economic gain for local businesses while preserving environmental quality (visit CEED's ecotourism page, Nature Tourism in Northwest Pennsylvania). CEED has just completed a regional visioning exercise that resulted in the creation of only the second intergovernmental Environmental Advisory Council in Pennsylvania. The Meadville Community Energy Project is the first in the nation to use Home Energy Ratings Systems to organize low-income tenants to select landlords on the basis of energy efficiency. Landlords who invest in energy conservation measures improve the environment and charge more for rent. Tenants pay more for rent but their energy bills are significantly lower. And CEED is using murals, sculptures, fountains and plantings -most notably in reclaimed brownfields - to teach business owners, workers and redevelopment authorities about issues of sustainable development.

LESSONS LEARNED

Allegheny College is a small institution. It has no graduate students, business school or engineering program. It prides itself on excellent teaching, and it was with that in mind that CEED got its start. CEED looked to its regional backyard because faculty knew from experience that hands-on, inquiry based learning was the most effective way to teach the next generation of environmental problem solvers. We also knew that a top-down approach, that is a series of solutions handed down from the college on the hill to the community in the valley, would never be as effective as a cooperative effort between the town and the college.

In effect CEED took its classrooms and turned them inside out. We pushed our students from the passivity of their classroom chairs and required them to interact with the members of our community. Simultaneously, near the beginning of every project, we asked key members of the community to join us in the process of creating solutions that would benefit them. CEED has partnered with the Department of Environmental Protection, City Councils, corporate environmental engineers, bankers, fourth graders, church congregations, farmers and non-profit environmental groups, to name a small representative sample. We have worked hard to include underrepresented people in our region such as farmers, ethnic minorities and women's groups. Too often these groups are overlooked, and in many locations, they are the subjects of environmental discrimination and injustice.

While CEED has surely made its share of mistakes - begun projects that did not work and made recommendations that were impractical for this time and place - there have been almost no negative interactions between the town and the college. The response from residents of all walks of life has perhaps been put most clearly by Joe Galbo, Meadville's Tax Assessor. Galbo's response to being asked to work with students on the Meadville Community Energy Project was, "What took them so long? The Meadville Community Energy Project has broken down the barriers between students and the public. The community has received the students very warmly and learned that they are very enthusiastic. We have observed that the students are real people and the students are educating Meadville. Just as important is that the students are getting to know us. They are getting beyond stereotypes and getting a great education by trying to assist Meadville. This should have been done a long, long time ago."

CEED has succeeded because the faculty have stuck with what they do best: teaching college students. The risk the faculty took was to relinquish the power of command and control lecturing. Sure, faculty still assign readings and papers. They lecture when it is appropriate, but as students mature they are asked with increasing frequency to join faculty in teaching residents how to live sustainably. Allegheny students have already learned that preaching does not equal good teaching, and so they repeat what they have learned in college: work with people, let them learn with you, and stay focused on the goal of a sustainable economic and environmental future.


Eric Pallant is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Development and Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Allegheny College, Meadville, PA 16335. He can be reached at epallant@allegheny.edu.

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