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An Educational Eden?

David Montgomery

The Scarlet & Black

April 28, 2006
[Volume 122, Number 23]

[Note: This material is copyright by The Scarlet & Black, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the The Scarlet & Black.]

The town of Grinnell hopes to become the site of an ambitious project which will include an indoor rainforest, desgined as equal parts environmental statement, educational tool and tourist attraction. If Grinnell is to beat out three other communities for the Environmental Project, it first needs to come up with $25 million.

Local funds are stretched after a number of recent development projects, and town leaders are hoping that Grinnell College will support their effort. President Russell K. Osgood is skeptical.

"We're aware of [the economic benefits to the town], and that interests us," Osgood said, "but our primary interest is what it would do to help the program of the college."

Osgood said four criteria would determine the college's support:

    * If it is consistent with the college's educational mission
    * Financial feasibility
    * The risks if it doesn't work out
    * Other uses the college could find for the moneys

Osgood said that he is still trying to learn more about the project, but remains doubtful. "It's an incredibly expensive project," Osgood said. "It's visionary and interesting. I think the [financial] risks ... are quite high. I don't have a strong sense of the positive benefits that would flow to the college."

David Campbell, Biology, has been working in the Amazon rainforest since the early 1970s and served on the Project's board several years ago. "Like all captive exhibits, this is just a facsimile of the real thing," Campbell said. "I think its real potential is as a teaching tool."

Jonathan Andelson, Anthropology, is the chair of Grinnell's Prairie Studies Program, and submitted a report to Osgood about potential benefits for the college from the Project. They included small research projects, supplements for textbook study of ecosystems, student internships and jobs at the Project.

The Project is projected to be a major attraction for elementary school field trips. Education students at Grinnell could work with the Project's emplyoees to develop teaching methods. David Oman, the executive director of the Project, said that one goal of the Project would be "the professional development of teachers."

The Environmental Project isn't entirely revolutionary. The Eden Project opened in the U.K. in 2001, and is a similarly conceived complex. Many involved in the project from one side or another have pointed to the Eden Project as a successful example.

"A couple of our trustees have been to the Eden Project, and they were ... dubious about it [going in]," said Osgood. "They went to it and thought it was absolutely fantastic."

When Campbell served on the Environmental Project's board, he took a special trip to see Eden. "I came back dazzled," Campbell said. "It's financially successful. It's become a centerpiece for environmentalism."

Mike Blouin, a Democratic candidate for governor and former director of Economic Development under Governor Vilsack, had a similar experience.

"I didn't think much of the [Environmental] Project until I ... visited the Eden Project," Blouin said. "It made a believer out of me that this could work," though Blouin expressed reservations about how much of the project should be funded by the government.

Dean of Admission Jim Sumner said that he didn't expect a major impact on applications if the project was located in Grinnell. "Any time that we can point to any academic advantage a student has here, that's what we talk about," Sumner said. "It would be one of several things that would drive the application pool up. I wouldn't see it as one of those things that would drive the applications up five or 10 percent."