Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Lehigh STEPS up to global challenges

Daniel E. Smith Jr. '71, chairman of Lehigh's board of trustees, and President Alice P. Gast symbolically break ground for the new STEPS building. Waiting their turn, from left, are Breena Holland, Bob Booth, Tim Coull, Sibel Pamukcu, and Chris Knight.

With the ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday afternoon for the new Science, Technology, Environment, Policy and Society (STEPS) building, Lehigh University celebrated its commitment to address the most critical global issues of our time.

The new 135,000-square-foot facility, located at the corner of Packer Avenue and Vine Street on Lehigh's Asa Packer campus, will provide offices for 80 faculty, staff, and graduate students. It will feature 50 research and state-of-the-art teaching labs, as well as 10 classrooms, computer labs, seminar rooms, and a 75-seat auditorium.

STEPS will draw faculty from disciplines across the university who conduct research in areas including climate change, aquatic ecosystems, nanotechnology, groundwater contamination, environmental literacy and energy-related topics, to name a few.

President Alice P. Gast, addressing a throng of Lehigh students, faculty, staff, and alumni who gathered on a plaza near the construction site for the new building, placed the STEPS program in the context of the current global financial crisis.

“The uncertainties we face today remind us of how vulnerable we are and they cause us to reflect on our core mission and our core values,” Gast said. “Despite these uncertainties, this is not the time to retreat or give up. In fact, now is the time when, more than ever, we need to meet the challenges of the world and contribute real value to real problems such as energy, environment, infrastructure and resources.

“As a nation and as a world, we will need to come out of the current financial crisis focusing our attention on solving the fundamental problems of our planet—pollution, climate change, disease and hunger. Lehigh is very strong in this type of work and we are eager to make our contributions even greater.”

The $62.1 million facility will reflect Lehigh’s commitment to environmental principles. It is designed to meet the certification criteria set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, which is considered the standard for sustainable architecture in the U.S.

One wing of the facility will have environmentally friendly ground cover planted on its roof to improve insulation and reduce the amount of storm water entering the city’s sewage system.

And Gast drew appreciative laughter from the crowd when she assured them that “for those of you with fond memories of Maginnes Lawn, the facility has been designed in an L-shape to accommodate a new and improved Frisbee field.”

“Much more than bricks and mortar”

President Alice P. Gast addresses the crowd during the groundbreaking ceremony.

As impressive as the new facility will be, Gast said, “we can’t lose sight of the fact that STEPS is much more than bricks and mortar.”

The initiative includes the creation of endowed chairs, endowed graduate fellowships for pre-doctoral students, and undergraduate research fellowships.

Gast said that STEPS “will position the university as a leader in addressing critical societal issues, such as making solar energy economical and providing access to clean water to everyone.

“Let me give you a sense of the magnitude of just one of these issues,” she said. “Experts estimate that one out of six people living on this planet does not have adequate access to water and that almost 5,000 children per day die as the result of water-borne illnesses. Five thousand children per day. This number would be greatly reduced if water for sanitation was available where they live. Think about the lasting impact on humanity if this problem could be resolved! I know that Lehigh has the ability to make that impact.”

Stating that STEPS “is about people and ideas and service to mankind,” Gast called on a dozen faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students to come forward as representatives of the many who are involved in the STEPS initiative.

Then, Gast joined Daniel E. Smith Jr. ’71, chairman of Lehigh’s board of trustees, and the 12 representatives in using shovels to turn over dirt for the official groundbreaking.

Dork Sahagian, professor of earth and environmental sciences and director of the Environmental Initiative, was one of the faculty members called on by Gast.

“It's a great day,” he said, following the ceremony. “It's really inspiring that Lehigh is acknowledging the importance of putting under one roof the myriad activities and disciplines involved in the study of our environment and society's interaction with it.”

President Alice P. Gast called up 12 faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students who represent the range of research the STEPS initiative will undertake.

Sarah Morgan ’09, a senior with a double major in environmental studies and environmental science who also was cited by Gast, said the new STEPS building will make a big difference.

“The first year I came to Lehigh was the first year you could get an environmental studies major,” Morgan recalled. “Lehigh University was obviously committed to environmental work, but they didn’t have a central location. The professors’ offices were not located down the hall from each other and there was no common area for people to gather.

“I think this would be a really great opportunity for all groups, departments and initiatives to have a place to meet. They are all working in the same goals. It’s time Lehigh had a showcase for the environmental work that is being done.”

Breena Holland, assistant professor of political science, is Morgan’s main advisor and was cited for research on environmental policy analysis.

“I'm really excited by the level of enthusiasm and excitement here today, and to see so many people here, recognizing that we're all partners in our work on environmental issues,” Holland said. “Just listening to the projects some of the students are working on was very inspiring—it’s great to have a sense of the level of research going on here at Lehigh.”

During her remarks, Gast said that common spaces have been incorporated into the building’s design “to generate informal interaction among faculty, students and staff. Such spaces inspire new insights and new collaborations, challenges to conventional wisdom and the creation of new knowledge.”

Students and faculty shared Gast’s enthusiasm for the collaborative approach.

“I think there's a lot to be said for the benefit of cross-disciplinary work and getting all the departments together in one building,” said Chris Knight, a senior who is pursuing a double major in science and environmental writing and in earth and environmental science. He also is editor of The Brown and White . “It will make it much easier for collaboration. It's also really good that Lehigh made this a green building.”

David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, said: “I think it's very exciting, especially for our students as it will provide a good environment for interaction between scientists and engineers, and provide a place for them to work together toward the larger goal of environmental education. It provides the environment for all disciplines to work together under one roof, and that sort of physical interaction is very important. This is the sort of building that can make this possible.”

--Jack Croft

Linda Harbrecht and Becky Straw also contributed to this article.

Photos by Theo Anderson

Posted on Thursday, October 16, 2008

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