by Jessica Walker
On a 388-acre campus in Richland, PA, some students might be crawling on their hands and knees to look for beetles in the dirt. Others might be studying invasive plants scattered throughout the sprawling woodlands. For them, it’s just another day in the classroom.
Located 25 miles north of Chatham University’s main campus, the Eden Hall Campus is home to the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment, which is the world’s first academic community built from the ground up for sustainable development, learning, and living. Eden Hall is designed to be self-sustaining with zero carbon emissions, waste and stormwater management, solar panels for electricity, and organic certified agricultural production. The Falk School of Sustainability & Environment offers bachelor and masters programs in sustainability and food studies, as well as two dual masters degrees with business studies.
Students engage in research to advance the development of Eden Hall’s campus and, ultimately, to benefit the larger community environmentally, economically, and socially. These goals align with the Henry John Simonds Foundation’s commitment to enhancing Southwestern Pennsylvania’s quality of life and crafting a sustainable future for all. Grants from the Henry John Simonds Foundation allow Eden Hall students to attend and give presentations at academic conferences. These students must be active at the conference through showcasing their research, presenting a poster, or helping to organize the event.
“Going to these conference sharpens [students’] intellectual capacity and their research skills,” says Peter Walker, dean and professor of the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment. “Effectively, you’re having to defend your work in front of your peers and professors.”
One such student is Alison Molnar. Now an alumna, Molnar was an undergraduate student studying sustainability when she began looking at the beetle population of the woodlands surrounding Eden Hall. Rather than just read about the beetles in a textbook, she went out and spent hours searching for and documenting the beetle populations.
Molnar gathered information about the types of native and invasive beetles, how many the woods have, and how it compares to standards of a typical, healthy environment. She presented her research at a national conference for the Eastern branch of the Entomological Society of America.
“She presented her research paper in the same panel as professors,” says Walker, “and this was when she was a third year undergrad.”
Three other students–Danielle Lewis, Arthur Link, and Joseph Mannino–studied a plant invasive to Pennsylvania known as the Japanese barberry. A prickly plant that lies low to the ground, Japanese barberry displaces other plants while providing ideal cover for small rodents. Eden Hall’s woods also have an increasing deer population since they haven’t been hunted for two generations. The combination is a problem since a deer tick–which can cause lyme disease–often survives its first year as a larva on mice.
“The Japanese barberry is increasing the mice population,” says Walker. “The increase in mice population and the increase in deer population means we have a massive deer tick problem and, therefore, a massive lyme disease problem.”
With professor Ryan Utz, the students examined possibilities for controlling Japanese barberry and potential effects on the health of the woods, deer, and humans. Lewis, Link, and Mannino presented their findings at the Ecological Society of America’s Mid-Atlantic chapter meeting.
The students didn’t stop there. Link presented the same research solo at the Mid-Atlantic Invasive Plants Councils. He also presented a paper at Kent State University that looked at the ethics of managing woodlands.
Mannino conducted a large survey of Eden Hall’s woodlands aimed at understanding its plant diversity. In doing so, he discovered a botanist’s dream: four American chestnut trees, right on campus.
According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the American chestnut is native to North America, and its wood was ideal for log cabin construction, earning it fame as “the tree that built America.” However, a fungus imported from Asia during the 20th century decimated 99% of the tree’s population.
Finding one is rare. Finding four, all in one place? Extraordinary.
“Mannino wasn’t looking for American chestnuts but, because he was so meticulous in his documentation, we found them,” says Walker. Although one of Eden Hall’s American chestnuts is infected, the other three do not appear to be. The plan is to breed from the uninfected trees and replant them.
Doing extensive research and presenting at conferences give Eden Hall’s students an opportunity not just to learn about sustainability and food studies, but to actually live it. And that is precisely the school’s mission.
“Everything at Eden Hall is hands-on,” says Walker. “It’s learning by doing, learning by experimenting, learning by making mistakes, and having fun.”