From setbacks to Sea Grant, Penn State Erie embraces sustainability

August 23, 2006

Environmental sustainability can be thought of as living within a budget. The Earth's resources are finite, so people have a responsibility to use them wisely.

Over the past decade, Penn State Erie has accelerated the pace of sustainability efforts that date back to its founding in 1948. When Penn State was given Mary Behrend's 400-acre Glenhill estate to create a presence in Erie, the University chose to retain the gentleman's-farm feel of the Behrend family's weekend retreat. Rather than bulldoze and start fresh, existing buildings were used for classroom and office space, right down to the sheep barn and car garages.

Much expansion has taken place in the ensuing 50-plus years. The campus is now 725 acres with an enrollment of nearly 4,000 students. New buildings were added, but with forethought and planning given to their environmental impact and keeping the rural character of the campus intact. In the sustainability spirit of waste not, want not, there is a campus legend that the dog kennels are still in use as faculty offices.

Still, in 2001, it was decided that sustainability needed to become a formal goal rather than a happy byproduct of chance or individual initiative. "It became a major push, from the University Provost on down," said Thomas Wortman, senior project associate for research and coordinator of Penn State Erie's efforts to mitigate its environmental impact. "We formed the Greener Behrend Task Force, and we started to focus on deliverables to measure our commitment to preserving the campus' historic integrity."

The Greener Behrend Web site (at online) lists 94 environmental sustainability strategies and the progress on each. Completed goals include:

-- Use of geothermal heating in residence halls.

-- Reclaim heat from the Junker Center pool area to use in other parts of the building.

-- Utilize automatic heating and cooling setbacks when buildings aren't in use and automatic light shutoff for parking lots during breaks and for classrooms and hallways when not in use.

-- Creation of the Arboretum at Penn State Erie, which is registered with the American Public Gardens Association. More than 200 species of trees are represented in the Arboretum, including at least one example of each state tree.

There's also a classroom and research component to sustainability.

-- In June, 15 students in "Science, Engineering, and Technology 497A: Environmental Issues in Eastern Europe," traveled to the city of Cottbus, in the former East Germany, to study efforts to remediate post-Soviet industrial pollution and compare Baltic coast erosion issues to those faced locally along the Lake Erie shoreline. The course was taught by Tony Foyle, assistant professor of geology, along with colleagues from Germany. Partial funding was provided by the German government.

-- Also in June, 30 Penn State Erie students studied tropical field biology in Costa Rica for the course "BIO 497: Tropical Biology," team-taught by Lisa Mangel and Jeanette Schnars, lecturers in biology.

-- The college was a guiding force behind the 31-member Regional Science Consortium, which coordinates research and educational projects for Lake Erie and the upper Ohio River basin.

-- Pennsylvania Sea Grant is housed at Penn State Erie, but provides coastal ecological and economic sustainability resources across Pennsylvania. Sea Grant is a partnership of Penn State, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is part of the National Sea Grant College Network.

-- In spring 2006, the college received $231,000 in funding from the state to launch an Applied Energy Research Center. The new center fosters development of innovation to improve energy efficiency. This innovation can take many forms, from development of advanced manufacturing products to exploring new uses of wind and solar power.

Sustainability of the campus itself is reflected in projects as large as highway construction and as mundane as mowing:

-- "During the planning stages for the Bayfront Connector highway that now runs to the east of the campus, the college voiced its environmental concerns early and often," Wortman said. PennDOT was receptive to Penn State Erie's concerns, which is reflected in the highway's dip below grade as it passes campus, and the many mounded plantings along the highway, both of which help alleviate noise pollution. "Conservation is about balancing progress with preservation," Wortman added.

-- Some fields on campus are mowed only twice a summer, and let go to meadow the rest of the season. Meadows don't consume fuel or salary needed for mowing, Wortman said, and provide habitat for wildflowers and small animals.

-- This fall, the campus will begin a new effort to alleviate water outfalls on the bluff face of the campus' portion of Wintergreen Gorge. Caused by water runoff from campus development, these outfalls hasten erosion of the bluff. Using Penn State funding plus financial assistance from the state Department of Environmental Protection and Coastal Zone Management, and the Great Lakes Commission, the campus will fix the present damage and prevent outfalls from happening again. "We do not have to do this," Wortman noted. "There's no regulation or mandate. But we want to repair the bluff because it's the right thing to do."

Students new to Penn State Erie this fall will receive information that helps them keep the campus green, from tips for reducing water and food waste to opportunities to become active in on-campus green student groups and their activities. Anyone wishing to learn more about the campus efforts or how they can build on Penn State Erie's success in their own environment, can check out the Web site (at online) contact Thomas Wortman directly at (814) 898-6160 or e-mail

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Last Updated March 19, 2009