A Community Approach to Sustainability

Sustainable College Community

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

With an eye on riverfront expansion, Pottstown, a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania community, acquired a former energy generating station situated on a three-acre brownfield site adjacent to the widely traveled Schuylkill River Trail and the Schuylkill River.

“We wanted it to be something, but we didn’t know what,” Pottstown Borough Manager Mark Flanders says. “It was sitting on the edge of our Riverfront Park. We wanted some use.”

After underusing the property for years as borough property storage, in 2009 the municipality transferred the land to Montgomery County Community College (MCCC). Over the course of a three-phase project, MCCC transformed the space into a Sustainability and Innovation Hub, which opened its doors at the West Campus in Pottstown in April.

The building is a space where students, faculty and the community can collaborate on environmental projects and research in science, technology, engineering and math-related (STEM) fields.

A GROWING PROJECT

For 50 years, MCCC has grown with the surrounding community to meet the evolving educational and workforce development needs of Montgomery County. The college’s comprehensive curriculum includes more than 100 associate degree/certificate programs, as well as specialized workforce development training and certifications. The transformation of the former energy-generating station into a state-of-the-art center for education, innovation and conservation supports and continues MCCC’s mission to benefit both its students and the community.

The first floor of the new Sustainability and Innovation Hub features a hydroponics and aquaponics laboratory. Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish provides nutrients for soil-less, or hydroponic, plants that, in turn, purify the water.

The second floor is a makerspace for 3D printing, robotics and engineering design. The mezzanine floor is an open area for classroom or meeting space.

David DiMattio, Ph.D., MCCC vice president of West Campus, was a primary proponent of the project. Formerly the dean of STEM, DiMattio, who began working at the College in 2014, pushed for the Hub’s completion. He says the biggest challenge was creating a fully adaptable building.

Sustainability lab

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

“We are trying to establish a resource that is very flexible and able to quickly morph into something else if necessary,” he says. “Even though there are some laboratory-like environments, it could absolutely be repurposed to fit another competency.”

A current example is a project analyzing how the arts play a role in science. “We have arts students collaborating with engineering students to make aesthetically pleasing bicycle racks,” DiMattio said.

Additionally, the Fox Chase Cancer Center’s Immersion Science Program recently utilized the building to bring a collaborative, hands-on research program to middle-school students from the region. The weeklong program gave students the opportunity to learn and practice more than a dozen laboratory techniques and experimental inquiry.

The building itself may be all encompassing, but student research is the overarching theme. “It allows a community member to be exposed to a skill set, a competency in a particular area,” DiMattio explains.

Sustainability lab

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

RESEARCH-DRIVEN SUSTAINABILITY

Research is central to the work of MCCC student interns Brenden Shoemaker and Emily Bohn.

Shoemaker’s project is a grow wall, which incorporates a Dutch bucket system to aid in growing tomatoes and hops indoors instead of their typical outdoor growing location.

Bohn conducts the daily aquaponics testing, checking pH, nitrates and ammonia levels. She also analyzes the process and outcome of strawberries cultivated through the regular aquaponics method with pipes in comparison to strawberries grown with pellets. “This kind of opportunity to do research at a community college level is really unprecedented,” says Bohn, who plans to study environmental science. “The connections you make really are incredible.”

DiMattio says students are in the lab an average of four to five days per week, inventing ways to enhance and improve the aquaponics unit. When parasites became a problem, for example, students collaborated to find a deterrent — ladybugs — that helped to organically cleanse the process.

Collaborating about sustainability

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

“We’re trying to find low-cost ways for the grower at home to use recycled plastics and recycled wood,” Shoemaker says. “It’s a whole ecosystem that works together, so there’s not a lot of waste products.”

Since crops — including lavender, mint and basil — are grown indoors, less water is needed. “We’re not losing water to the sun (evaporation),” Bohn says. “There’s no fertilizer runoff. We’re recycling the water constantly. You can grow plants and fish in the same system cohesively.”

In addition to water conservation efforts, the aquaponics efforts further sustainable science and self-sufficiency.

As a way to increase collaboration, DiMattio hopes to replicate the aquaponics lab functions at local high schools, empowering students to share data, scientific methodologies and hypotheses. He also plans to offer a STEM activity day with local schools. The greater Pottstown Area robotics student organization will eventually be using the Hub as a resource. Future joint initiatives are in the works, DiMattio says.

PARTNERING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

MCCC also has worked closely with the greater Pottstown community and organizations in creating its multipurpose approach to learning and collaboration.

MCCC Sustainability and Innovation Hub

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

WE CAN WORK WITH THIS. The renovated building that houses MCCC’s Sustainability and Innovation Hub, a former energy generating station, maintains its original brick walls and open beams and uses available natural lighting from skylights and windows in the hallways and rooms. The Hub’s classroom spaces can be repurposed for different educational and community uses, including a hydroponics and aquaponics laboratory (left) and STEM programs for middle school students from the region.

Throughout the planning, construction and opening of the Hub, MCCC coordinated with the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA), a nonprofit organization committed to celebrating the Schuylkill River watershed, which is home to 3.2 million people across five greater Philadelphia counties. The organization’s office is located in a portion of the Sustainability and Innovation Hub building. Executive Director Silas Chamberlin says he worked alongside MCCC as a “casual advisor” to help plan the building and offered feedback on ways to make it community-centric.

Moving forward, Chamberlin says he intends to partner with MCCC in offering internships and class credits for engineering and environmental science students. Chamberlin envisions students developing technology to monitor water quality in the Schuylkill River. The adjacent Schuylkill River Trail, which is used approximately 2 million times per year, could benefit from studentcreated drones to help monitor the land that the SRHA owns and maintains.

Chamberlin credits MCCC with transforming the area from a brownfield into a recreational hub for all to enjoy. “Riverfront Park, where the Hub is located, is Pottstown’s riverfront,” he says. “It was just a gravel lot and some overgrown weeds and an abandoned industrial building. It wasn’t very welcoming.”

engineering design center

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

WHAT GOES AROUND. This community-oriented facility benefits a wide variety of students, from middle-schoolers to members of the area’s active workforce. One of the many spokes in the Sustainability and Innovation Hub centers on workforce development. For example, MCCC offers a new iOS Software Developer Academy at the Hub, where students can learn to develop mobile applications. The Hub also features an engineering design center that will prepare students for more advanced technology fields, working with robotics, drones and 3D printers.

The college’s improved parking lot, which captures water runoff and features a rain garden, is a model for green infrastructure, according to Chamberlin. It also makes the park more inviting. Wind turbines in the environmentally friendly lot generate energy to light the parking lot at night. Turbines also provide data to students, DiMattio says.

“Many aspects of sustainable science are being translated into the classroom,” DiMattio says. “Students can actually learn from the data how much energy is needed to sustain the building… and what is necessary to help the crops grow.”

Since completion of the improvements and state-of-the-art building, Chamberlin said SRHA started offering kayak and bike rentals, encouraging community involvement and expanding the area’s recreational opportunities.

“Thanks to MCCC for redeveloping this building, which is really the hub for people experiencing and connecting with the Schuylkill River in Pottstown,” Chamberlin says. “It really brought some life back to the park.”

EDUCATION FUELS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The Hub is poised to reinvigorate the greater Pottstown business community as well, officials indicate.

TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce President Eileen Dautrich views the Hub as an “opportunity to attract business,” as well as boost existing business operations through employee training and product development.

“That’s a great asset for us, this community and the Pottstown employment market,” Dautrich says. “We benefit from that. We’re able to attract employers that might be looking for certain training.”

DiMattio views the Hub as a wagon wheel. “You have spokes coming from any direction, and they meet at a common source,” he explains.

One of the many spokes in this Hub centers on workforce development. To date, DiMattio says that some local companies have sent employees to the iOS Software Developer Academy to improve their mobile software development skills. MCCC also will offer engineering course work, as well as non-credit aquaponics and additional software development classes.

“Many of the things that we offer at the Hub could translate into professional development for local industry,” he says.

educating and training students for regional jobs and careers

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

In 2015, MCCC received a $2 million matching grant from the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation. This gift established an endowment supporting MCCC’s expertise in educating and training students for regional jobs and careers. The first distribution from matched funds is helping to support the Hub’s Hydroponics and Aquaponics Laboratory and the Software Developer Academy, among other initiatives.

Flanders agrees that the available courses and training will help revitalize the economic face of the former industrial town. “Every job in there represents wage taxes,” Flanders says, noting that the borough will see a gain in revenue, as well as in visitors to local shops, restaurants and other businesses.

The Hub is also drawing in the community for various networking and business-related functions. Dautrich said the Chamber is looking to use the space for an upcoming event to introduce members and young women in the community — and take advantage of educational opportunities.

Sustainability lab

PHOTOS © DAVID DEBALKO

“It was created for that purpose and lends itself to a place where groups can come together and have technology accessible,” she says.

Recently the Pottstown Borough Council and the Pottstown School Board held a joint meeting at the Hub.

“There was an attitude of appreciation for what the college did with it,” Flanders says. “It was a dramatic change. I don’t think anybody expected what it ended up being. It’s a pretty good fit.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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Has interest in sustainability initiatives—from alternative energy and water conservation to “green” landscaping, recycling, fossil-fuel divestment, local sourcing, and more—waned on your campus?


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