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Building a GreenHouse

Students craft programming for new residential complex

By Thomas Weaver Article published March 7, 2006

U-Heights North
Construction time: This recent aerial photo shows progress on the north complex of University Heights — the effort to develop curriculum for a new green-themed residence program is speeding along as well. (Photo: Architectural and Engineering Services)

Walter Poleman scrawls three adjacent rectangles on the blackboard and labels them S1, S2 and S3. He assigns the number 185 to S1, then breaks the number down into subsets of 120 and 65. An observer glancing into 307 Lafayette on Feb. 28, might have assumed Poleman was a mathematics professor setting up an equation that would ultimately reveal how long it would take Farmer X to sow soybeans across his 185 acres, or something along those lines.

However, Poleman is a senior lecturer in botany, and this particular word problem hits close to home for the four students in the classroom. It’s about something they’re all intimately familiar with — living on campus. S1, S2 and S3 are the three buildings of the south complex of the new University Heights Residential Learning Complex. One-hundred and eighty-five is how many students will live in S1 beginning next fall; 120 is the number of students projected to take part in the core programming for GreenHouse, the residential learning center that will be located in the south complex.

Poleman, faculty director of the new GreenHouse, has worked closely this semester with the class, NR 185 “Designing the Environmental Learning Center,” and its teacher, Steve Libby, lecturer in the Rubenstein School. Their semester-long assignment is a practical one — help develop the programming that will create a meaningful academic/residential experience and knit together the community of students who will call GreenHouse home in 2006-07.

GreenHouse seeding
Last Tuesday, Poleman was touching base with Libby’s class to respond to initial ideas posed by the students and talk about next steps. As the class helps envision and develop a one-credit seminar, this give and take is providing insight into the reality of collaborative work. (See Residential Learning Communities for the work-in-progress GreenHouse plans.)

Questions on the table include: Should GreenHouse students receive letter grades or satisfactory/unsatisfactory? How do you make the residential learning center activities compelling and valuable, but keep them from overwhelming students’ regular coursework? How do you create a program that will be sustainable for the faculty who will need to evaluate the students’ efforts?

Each question spirals into more questions. Poleman tells students about his recent discussion with Carl Newton, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Rubenstein School, as he builds upon the class’s work to guide the new course through administrative approval. Newton wondered if making the course credit-bearing might scare away some participants. Or, if students receive letter grades, what do you do if they fail? Kick them out of the residence hall?

How the world works
Creating a residential learning program doesn’t rank with those two old standards, making sausage or making laws, when it comes to processes one should avoid witnessing, but it can have its challenges. For Libby’s students — undergraduates Emily Lord, Tori Jones and Daniel Lim, and graduate student/resident advisor Joseph Reznik — that’s where the fun and a good deal of the learning lies.

Lord, a junior in environmental studies, says, “I was looking for a participatory class that would show me more applicable ways to use my knowledge. I liked the concept and the potential of the residential learning center.”

Jones, also a junior in environmental studies, believes the course has been excellent preparation for putting her knowledge into action. “It’s been a chance to understand how the university works, to understand the complexities of problem-solving and working with a group.”

While the students develop ideas for how GreenHouse students might participate in their hall’s energy management or get involved with the landscaping of the watercourse adjacent to the complex, they’re also on a more basic level starting to build a community. That’s a primary draw for Lim, a first-year student in the Honors College who currently lives in the north complex of University Heights. “I’ve always been interested in community structure and dynamics,” he says, “and finding ways to link that with an ecologically sustainable lifestyle is especially appealing to me.”

Jones feels much the same. Work as a UVM Eco-Rep helping to promote recycling in the residence halls last year sparked that interest. UVM’s green campus/environmental university ideals match her own and she sees creating a committed core of first-year students as an important way to spread the word. “How do you get people involved?” she asks. “How do you unite a larger population?”

The students know they won’t find all the answers this semester, and according to their teacher, that’s just the way it should be. “They’re learning about putting together ideas and having them commented on. It’s how the real world works,” Libby says. “Nothing is cast in concrete.”