Future unclear for Biosphere 2
Beth Erickson | Thursday, September 18, 2003
Biosphere 2, a 3.15-acre glass-and-steel terrarium once thriving in the arid Arizona desert, now faces an uncertain future – and Notre Dame students planning to participate in its Earth Semester program this spring are in a similar predicament.
The company that owns Biosphere 2 settled a lawsuit against Columbia University out of court last week. The owners claimed that Columbia’s decision to substantially curtail its financial commitment to the research facility constituted a breach of contract. The terms of the settlement have not been made public.
Columbia will relinquish control of the superstructure and its educational and research programs in December.
Athia Hardt, spokesperson for Columbia and Biosphere 2 Center, said, “As of Dec. 22, all research currently being conducted at Biosphere 2 will cease – it will either have been wrapped up or transitioned elsewhere.”
Christine Mingione, a Notre Dame student currently studying at Biosphere 2, said that she and the other students will complete their studies unhindered this semester.
“There is a sense of motivation among both students and faculty to make this the best semester possible and to go out with a bang in whatever way we can,” Mingione said.
The fate of spring semester hopefuls remains undetermined.
“The undergraduate Earth Semester program at Biosphere 2 has yet to be formally canceled,” said professor Paul Grimstad, director of undergraduate studies in Environmental Sciences. “When speaking by phone with one of the faculty at Biosphere 2 the other day, I was informed that they are trying to make sure a spring semester goes ahead and that they plan to have as good a spring semester as possible.”
Texas Christian University, located in Fort Worth, has expressed interest in assuming financial responsibility for the program, Grimstad said. Hardt had no comment on this potential endowment.
If the program does not recommence next semester, spring semester Biosphere students such as Junior Lauren Kinsman may encounter housing troubles. Kinsman has not been informed of her rooming situation for the spring.
“I’ve e-mailed [International Study Programs] about whether or not I will be guaranteed housing on campus and they haven’t gotten back to me yet,” she said.
Charles Kulpa, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, said that Notre Dame will not attempt to simulate the Biosphere experience if the program is shut down.
“I do not believe there is a program anywhere that can supplement for the learning experience that is provided by the Earth Semester at Biosphere 2,” he said.
Notre Dame is one of only 19 academic institutions to implement a program at the facility this semester. According to Kulpa, Notre Dame has delegated over 60 students to participate in the renowned program since its inception as an educational facility in 1996.
“Every one of [Notre Dame’s participants] indicated that it was a life-changing experience,” he said.
Kulpa said that the termination of the Earth Semester program would deliver a significant blow to environmental education.
“It [is] an extraordinary program, taught by dedicated faculty in an unprecedented setting,” he said.
Mingione said that the public is largely unaware of the facility’s goals, which may never be accomplished because of the closure. She said the Biosphere 2 education program aims to “bring future scientists and policymakers together to teach how each system works in order to create a more efficient country in the future.”
The program has played an instrumental role in the Environmental Sciences department at Notre Dame and has educated such notables as Notre Dame’s 14th Rhodes Scholar, Andrew Serazin, who graduated last May.