Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Lehigh takes large STEPS on environment

An artist's conception of the new STEPS facility. For larger image, click on picture.

As world interests in the challenges related to energy, water, land use and resource consumption grow, Lehigh University is launching an $85 million initiative to catalyze multidisciplinary research and education about the environment. The university’s Science, Technology, Environment, Policy & Society Initiative (STEPS) represents the largest undertaking of its kind in the school’s 142-year history.

It is anticipated that the new initiative will lead to breakthrough research on broad environmental issues while providing exceptional educational and research experiences for students.

“The world faces significant challenges to gauge the human impact on our environment and balance the finite resources of our planet as populations grow,” says Alice P. Gast, Lehigh president. “These challenges play out on local, regional, national and global scales, and we understand that these challenges require a multidisciplinary approach to go beyond boundaries and integrate fields in the sciences, engineering and social sciences.”

In almost all areas, Gast adds, advances are coming at the intersections of disciplines—in environments where individuals from diverse perspectives interact daily to exchange ideas.

“In such an atmosphere, leaders and thinkers can overcome cultural and communications barriers to develop a common understanding of major issues, as well as an appreciation for what each brings to the table,” Gast says.

The multidisciplinary research and teaching facility would be located at the corner of West Packer Avenue and Vine Street. For larger image, click on picture.

Lehigh will create such an environment through a new 130,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that will be constructed on campus, at the corner of West Packer Avenue and Vine Street, to encourage collaborative research and teaching of environmental science, engineering and policy, and to provide cutting-edge undergraduate science laboratories in life science, chemistry and environmental science.

The new facility will feature flexible spaces and the latest technology, according to Gast. Groundbreaking for the building is anticipated for late spring 2008, with a projected opening of June 2010.

Dork Sahagian, professor of earth and environmental sciences and director of the university’s multidisciplinary Environmental Initiative, sees enormous potential for broadening students’ awareness of environmental issues as a result of the new facility.

“Enabling multidisciplinary research and teaching is the main driving force behind it,” he says. “Having a variety of different disciplines under the same roof adds a broader academic perspective than would be possible through any single discipline or academic department.”

Moreover, he adds, the new facility will bring in students from across the university, exposing them to work, teachings, research and projects conducted within it.

“By housing all the chemistry, biology and earth and environmental sciences teaching labs there, it will bring in students from many disciplines,” he says. “No matter what their majors, all students should improve their understanding and awareness of the environment. This is a huge step in that direction.”

The building is the latest in a string of significant university investments related to the sciences. In 2005, the Smith Family Center for Optical Technologies was opened, and in 2003, a facility was built to support continued research in the biosciences.

Other major components of the STEPS initiative include the creation of endowed chairs for faculty engaged in science, technology, environment, policy and society; undergraduate research fellowships to provide opportunities for meaningful research in related fields; and endowed graduate fellowships for pre-doctoral students in related fields, particularly the social sciences.

An artist's conception of the concourse of the new STEPS facility. For larger image, click on picture.

The multifaceted, integrated initiative will position the university, its faculty and its students to be well-prepared to face the world’s challenges, says Anne Meltzer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This new program will allow collaborative teams of engineers and natural and social scientists to work easily together across disciplinary boundaries,” she says. “Within the same facility, undergraduate students from a range of disciplines can team up with graduate students and faculty to work on significant issues facing society. Scientists, engineers and social scientists can debate and help shape environmental policy in productive and constructive ways.”

Adds Gast “This exceptional initiative will provide optimal resources for faculty and students across the university, which will enable them to work together on solutions for the global challenge of limited energy, water and resources. Investments in the new building, in endowed chairs, and in graduate and undergraduate research will provide long-term dividends in greater quality of life, enhanced human health, sounder national and international policies—in short, a better world and brighter future for all.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, September 06, 2007

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