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Many disciplines, one goal

Lehigh’s new STEPS building enhances the environment for research

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” the American naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Muir’s words are engraved on the granite floor of Lehigh’s newest academic building near a fountain of water and a 20-foot-high window. Etched into the window is an enlargement of a leaf from the American chestnut tree, the one-time canopy of eastern forests that was decimated by a fungus but is now being reintroduced. Through the glass, the stone façade of Packard Laboratory, home of Lehigh’s P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, appears across Packer Avenue.

Completed last summer at a cost of $62 million, the STEPS (Science, Technology, Environment, Policy and Society) building embodies the interconnectedness of life that Muir embraced and the conviction that the solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges require collaborations across multiple disciplines.

STEPS’ bold mission flows from its name. The 135,000-square-foot structure is part of an $85-million initiative that has assembled engineers, natural scientists and social scientists to tackle problems in energy and environmental sustainability that are too complex to confine to one field of study. How can changes in earth’s climate be accurately modeled and projected? How can contaminated air and water be most effectively remediated, and clean drinking water most efficiently provided? How many factors, from government land-use policies to power transmission to the terrestrial absorption of carbon dioxide, are hitched to the desire to clear trees for a wind farm?

Lehigh’s scientists and engineers have investigated issues like these for decades. STEPS promises to enhance their efforts by fostering new partnerships among researchers who just months ago worked in different buildings. While the initiative will endow faculty chairs and student fellowships, the building will house researchers from earth and environmental sciences, environmental engineering, and energy systems engineering.

Glass is used throughout STEPS to soften the boundaries between building and environment.

“Being under one roof,” says Derick Brown, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and codirector of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative (EI), “will enable all of us working on environmentally related research to interact daily. Most ideas for collaborative research come from chance meetings. You can’t plan ideas.”

Anne Meltzer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of earth and environmental sciences, agrees.

“There are many ways to communicate over large distances,” says Meltzer, “but they don’t really substitute for working in the same building.”

The bigger research picture
Lehigh’s environmental engineers and scientists are already working to improve the quality of drinking water in the developing world and to remove arsenic from groundwater. Engineers are pioneering nanotechnologies to remove toxins from groundwater and surface water, while journalists are studying the media’s coverage of nanotechnology’s promise and potential pitfalls.

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One of the STEPS building’s most salient features, especially in early evening, is its five-story atrium.

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