Penn State Altoona makes great strides in sustainability

ALTOONA, Pa. — Whether you follow the paw prints to the renovated buildings downtown, take the new bike path near Thoreau’s cabin or hike the trails of Seminar Forest, you’ll be sure to see the sustainability efforts Penn State Altoona has been making.

The Ivyside campus looked to its urban neighbor and came up with a novel plan to renovate existing downtown structures and revitalize the community.

The University has 24 campuses spread across the Commonwealth, and many have sustainability initiatives that integrate their classrooms with their surroundings. One of the greatest success stories of a campus cooperating with its local community to create a more sustainable environment may be at Penn State Altoona. Altoona’s central Ivyside campus has long struggled with finding enough classroom space to accommodate a growing student population. Finding a sustainable solution, particularly given the limited area available on the central campus, called for creativity. As Kiersten Bricker, a business student at Penn State Altoona, said, “There’s no room to build new buildings at Ivyside without destroying what’s left of the trees and grassy areas.”

The Ivyside campus looked to its urban neighbor and came up with a novel plan to renovate existing downtown structures and revitalize the community. It partnered with the City of Altoona, the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp., Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. and Blair County General Authority, and acquired three buildings in the downtown district of Altoona. This reuse of urban space is helping address the need of additional classroom spaces in a cost-effective way while helping to preserve the area surrounding the campus. Altoona campus Chancellor Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry said, “Our investments downtown saved green space here on campus, yet at the same time, provided us with much needed space.” She also went on to say that by repurposing, they were able to build everything at a fraction of what a new building would cost. “Cost savings is really important in these times of budgetary challenges.”

“When Thoreau went to live by the side of Walden Pond in 1845, in a 10- by 15-foot cabin he built himself, he was very consciously embarking on what he called an ‘experiment’ in living. When my Environmental Studies 297 class built a replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the fall of 2011, we were undertaking an experiment in learning," said Ian Marshall, professor of English.

The five-story building adjacent to the Playhouse Theatre is now the Aaron Building. The basement contains classrooms used for college and continuing education courses. The first floor features The Dining Car Downtown cyber café and administrative offices. The second floor houses the Office of Continuing Education and Training. The third and fourth floors are home to the communications degree program suite and state-of-the-art Nursing Labs, respectively. The top floor is The William J. Castle Executive Quarters, which can be used for events, meetings and lodging for distinguished speakers, award recipients and special guests of the University as well as the Sutter Suites, made possible by a gift honoring the lives of Richard C. Sutter and Sally A. Sutter.

Renovations to the Aaron Building include a number of sustainable features. Counter tops, window sills, ceiling and aluminum tiles, bar stools and even wool carpet backing are all made from upward of 75 percent recycled material. There are automatic lighting controls and faucet sensors, and the guestroom furniture is made by a sustainable forestry initiative accredited company.

The Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence is one of the newest renovations in downtown Altoona.

The Sheetz Center is one of the newest renovations in the downtown district of Penn State Altoona's campus.

Image: Christie Clancy

The renovated Aaron Building sits between two other renovated buildings, the Devorris Downtown Center and The Kazmaier Family Building. Devorris hosts classes both in its basement and its large theatre. Kazmaier was formerly a radio broadcast building and is now home to Penn State Altoona’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Other previous renovations include the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, which was the former Meyer Jonasson building. The center first opened its doors in fall 2011, giving students a place to develop their business ideas and concepts, to counsel small business owners and to interact with local business leaders. Steve and Nancy Sheetz’s enthusiasm surrounding their donation for the center was infectious to other donors who helped in making the center the place for students and the community to come together. Workshops for local businesses, the entrepreneurial program and a trading room are just some of the attractions of newest addition to the downtown renovations. The former Kaufman’s Wedding World is now Rossman Park, adjacent to the Sheetz Center, named in honor of Bill and Judy Rossman. The vacant lot that sat there after Kaufman’s was torn down is now a green space on 11th Avenue close to the bus station as well.

Rossman Park is a green space on 11th Avenue in downtown Altoona, next to the Sheetz Center.

Rossman Park is a green space on 11th Avenue in downtown Altoona, next to the Sheetz Center.

Image: Christie Clancy

In 2010, the city of Altoona, through the Department of Transportation’s Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative, was awarded $300,000 to install a path between the Ivyside Campus and the new downtown campus. Amie Myers is an environmental studies graduate of Penn State Altoona and is now an external consultant and owner of Your Green Life. She was hired to conduct a transportation demand management study to look at campus growth, mass transit and pedestrian use. "Finding ways to move people more effectively is an opportunity for Penn State Altoona to decrease its contribution to transportation-based greenhouse gas emissions," said Myers. The new pedestrian and bicycle path make it easy for students and the community to travel safely for classes and events. The path’s beginning is near the Thoreau Cabin and Seminar Forest.

Paw prints in downtown Altoona.

Paw prints lead past the Aaron Building in downtown Altoona.

Image: Christie Clancy

The cabin and forest are located just off of Juniata Gap road, leading to the main entrance of the Ivyside campus on Beckers Lane. Recreating Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” cabin was an immersive learning experience for 16 students who built it in 2011.

Ian Marshall, professor of English at Penn State Altoona, wrote an essay of his experience of building the cabin. “When Thoreau went to live by the side of Walden Pond in 1845, in a 10- by 15-foot cabin he built himself, he was very consciously embarking on what he called an ‘experiment’ in living. When my Environmental Studies 297 class built a replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the fall of 2011, we were undertaking an experiment in learning,” Marshall said.

In the future, the cabin will feature the written works of Thoreau as well as student research and art projects. The cabin currently houses environmental research projects that have been undertaken in the woods nearby.

Students built a replica of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" cabin.

Students built a replica of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" cabin.

Image: Christie Clancy

The trail next to the cabin leads to Seminar Forest. This 40-acre tract of land was obtained by Penn State Altoona in 2008. The ENVST Senior Seminar created Seminar Forest in the spring of 2010. The forest, previously known as the Ritchey Property, now has hiking and mountain biking trails and a restored pond. The land has been geologically assessed, surveyed for its biodiversity, studied and is available for the community to enjoy.

Penn State Altoona’s Ivyside and downtown campuses continue to expand their sustainability efforts. Residents and visitors can enjoy a butterfly garden and a community garden, and the campus is increasing its recycling efforts and its Environmental Studies program. The ENVST program is an interdisciplinary degree that emphasizes interactions between the natural sciences and the humanities. Highlights of the program consist of fieldwork, internships and student research projects. Core courses are taught by faculty with backgrounds in biology, literature, earth sciences, economics, history and geography.

Penn State Altoona is using its built and natural environment as teaching spaces, and is truly serving as a model for sustainability activity and education.

For more information about sustainability at Penn State, visit www.sustainability.psu.eduFacebookTwitter or YouTube.

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Last Updated April 25, 2013