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Never a dull moment” is how Debbie Kasper, sociologist and associate professor of environmental studies, describes her first few years at Hiram College.
Kasper joined the College’s environmental studies program in 2011, the same year the department received a major grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Out of that gift emerged the College’s high-profile Teaching, Research and Environmental Engagement, or “TREE” House, a project that will transform a 1901 campus-owned residence into a new home for the expanding environmental studies program and an educational model of energy efficiency.
Although new to the College, Kasper was appointed director of this ambitious endeavor. Renovations are rarely easy, and the goals of community education and providing hands-on student learning experience created additional complexity.
“The project is deliberately set up to be highly public,” Kasper says. “We want to make what we learn through this process — about the costs and benefits of different products and energy-saving strategies — available to the community. In sharing our research and experience, we hope to be a useful resource for homeowners on a budget looking to make home improvements of their own.”
To meet this objective, Kasper and the students and faculty involved with the project regularly post information and updates on the project’s “Discovery” blog, have hosted public education events and are creating additional informational resources.
The process has been rewarding in many ways. And as an experiential learning tool, Kasper says that student involvement with the TREE House project has the benefit of promoting a greater sense of place, “giving students more practical knowledge of the day-to-day operations of their college community and helping them feel more invested in their shared campus home.”
The TREE House is also a good fit with Kasper’s research interests about society’s changing perceptions of normal and the environmental consequences of those.
Ultimately, she would like to see more sustainable practices become the new normal.
One important step, she believes, is “making the invisible, visible,” adding that, “we can’t make conscious choices about things we’re not aware of.”
With the TREE House, this means providing information about the building’s special features and exposing parts of what is usually hidden, such as HVAC ductwork and wall insulation, which serves as a visual reminder of all the things that go into our buildings — choices about which can make them more or less comfortable and efficient.
Kasper says that her interest in societal transitions, which involve responding to changing environmental, energy and economic realities, aligns perfectly with Hiram’s tradition of eclecticism.
“To select from and use a wide variety of resources in the processes of learning, doing and problem-solving — that’s eclectic,” she says. “That’s what we’re doing with this house, it’s what we do in environmental studies, and it is one of the greatest strengths of Hiram’s liberal arts tradition.”
The TREE House is just one example of how Hiram students are given opportunities to take a broad view and then apply what they learn locally, in real ways.
“This skill will be invaluable as students navigate a changing future, and it is one that Hiram College is distinctly good at cultivating,” Kasper says. n
For more information about Hiram’s sustainability programs, see http://www.hiram.edu/about/sustainability.