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Living Lab

By Jon Reidel Article published February 23, 2005

indoor ecosystem
Students Wyatt Sidley (left) and Gautam Muralidharan sit in the midst of their indoor ecosystem located in their Living/Learning Center suite. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Waking up in the middle of the night with escaped beetles crawling all over wasn’t part of the project proposal. Neither was nearly getting arrested by campus police for taking some sand, or the violent death of a lizard at the toes of a pet store frog gone wild after being re-introduced to wilderness — as wild as a college dorm with a pond, rubber plants, orchids and baby palm trees can get, anyway.

Such is life in the experimental jungle of Living/Learning, where junior Gautam Muralidharan and his suitemates have built a miniature indoor ecosystem in the common area of their rooms.

Projects like these have inhabited the themed floors of Living/Learning since its opening in 1973. L/L’s mission is to provide a residential environment that integrates formal and informal learning experiences and encourages students to be responsible for their own education. And that it does: more than 40 programs currently exist in the maze of brick residence halls, ranging from clusters of students interested in topics including foreign languages, art, Japanese animation, documentary filmmaking and emergency medicine.

John Sama ‘84, the center’s director and alumnus of the emergency medicine program, says graduates often point to the lifetime connections they made by living there. Some even parlay their experience into a profession. One graduate of the mime and circus arts program went on to work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey before teaching physics in a clown outfit to students around the country. Another graduate of a sign language dorm is now an ASL interpreter.

“People often tell me at alumni weekend how they made lifetime connections with people of similar values at Living/Learning,” Sama says. “I know I did.”

Welcome to the jungle
When you walk into Room 370 in Building E of Living/Learning, the first thing that hits you is the warm blast of humidity. It’s balmy for February, especially afternoons, when the sun hits the Mylar wallpaper on the wall above the 36-square-foot oasis below, warming the trees, edible plants and pond stocked with frogs and minnows.

The interior ecosystem came about after Muralidharan, and partners William Wheeler, Wyatt Sidley, Joe Cosmides and Benjamin Kruse submitted a formal project proposal through Living/Learning’s “Walking the Walk: Applying Your Natural Resource Education” program. That initiative is designed to provide students with opportunities to blend formal coursework in natural resources with a living environment that emphasizes applying that knowledge to day-to-day life.

The resulting common area has become a popular destination for students looking to escape from the dreariness of the Vermont winter. Some visitors say it looks like a giant terrarium or compare it to one of Professor John Todd’s living machines.

“Most people aren’t sure what to make of it and just think it’s cool and that the air is really clean in here,” Muralidharan says.

“I thought it was the coolest thing I ever saw,” says first-year student Oliver LaFarge, who was inspired to start his own ecosystem in his room one floor below. “I moved my bed out of my room and sleep on the floor to make room for it. I get a lot of enjoyment out it — tending my garden so to speak. It’s amazing how happy it makes people just to walk in here and see it.”

For Muralidharan, the project has become a way to put his classes in ecosystem management and ecological design into practice. “This is a living lab that I can try out things that I’ve learned in class,” he says. “I’m seeing what happens up close when I allow for structure and function in an ecosystem. We get to sit right at the foot of nature so we can constantly interact with it. It’s also been keeping us sane during winter.”

Walking the walk
The project has also put the students in contact with people they normally wouldn’t have interacted with, and helped to create new alliances. Aside from meeting campus police, who thought the students were stealing sand for a beach party but now ask them “how their jungle is doing,” the students received free gravel from Pizzagalli Construction; roofing from Evergreen Slate; rocks from the geology department and plants from the UVM Greenhouse.

That’s all part of the plan, says Professor John Shane, chair of forestry and director of Walking the Walk.

“It’s incorrect for us to believe that there is a magic separation between what students do in school and what they do after class,” Shane says. “We as educators are missing the boat if we’re not engaging them in the other two-thirds of their existence. We ourselves know that the majority of real learning we did in college wasn’t in the classroom. Geometry, for example, doesn’t mean anything until you try to build a lean-to.”

Muralidharan says he hopes his indoor ecosystem will motivate students to take part in the university’s push to become a “green campus.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about making this a green campus, but we’re actually doing something about it. We broke some rules, bypassed some red tape and apologized later, but we got it done. We took quite a bit of heat and I know that L/L has taken a little heat as well, but John Sama deserves credit for going to bat for us. Experimental education is what Living/Learning is all about. That’s the main reason I’m living here.”