Sibyl R. Golden, Photo by Asiya Khaki ’09

Topping The Diana Center is a roof that in late summer this year popped with greens, yellows, and black thanks to beds of black-eyed Susans, deer-tongue grass, and goldenrod. This garden space above Morningside Heights was recently named the Sibyl Levy Golden ’38 Ecological Learning Center, thanks to her daughter’s thoughtful and much appreciated memorial to a woman whose passion for nature was well known and passed on to her. Committed to ecologic studies, Sibyl R. Golden says, “This green roof is a place of scientific investigation for both students and teachers. It provides a unique opportunity for students to do ecology field work directly on campus.”

With their environmental and economic benefits, green roofs are becoming more common and are welcome spots of nature especially in an urban environment such as the College’s. Most notably, they provide insulation for the buildings they cover, improving energy efficiency, and absorb runoff destined for sewer systems. Barnard’s green roof, however, fills an important role in addition to its practical advantages: It serves as an outdoor laboratory.

Field Studies Not Far Afield

Visitors to the Diana’s roof, which parallels Broadway, are treated to expansive views of both the Barnard and Columbia campuses. At the wider south end there is a small lawn with coffee tables and chairs where professors and students lounge, study, and enjoy the views. Some teachers even hold classes on the lawn. The opposite end is filled with gravel paths that run through dozens of beds of different types of plant life that in some areas grow waist-high. This is where the learning center becomes a scientific study site.

Hilary Callahan, associate professor of biology and also director of the Arthur Ross Greenhouse, was chosen as co-director of the green roof along with her colleague Martin Stute, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Environmental Science.

Callahan is teaching classes on the green roof this fall, and she and her students have already begun planting and tending vegetation. “We’ve chosen plant life mainly from the Hempstead Plains plant community on Long Island and the Rocky Summit plant community in the Hudson Valley,” says Callahan. “The plants native to those locations are used to growing under the types of harsh conditions that exist on the rooftop; they can survive exposure to direct sunlight, as well as wind and rain and shallow soil.”

Callahan will be using the green roof to teach methods for quantifying vegetation, along with more general lessons in plant ecology. “It will be a great opportunity to teach [from the] beginning all the way through senior-level biology classes.”

Stute intends to use both planted and unplanted areas of the roof as a teaching tool in his hydrology and environmental data analysis courses. About a month ago, a weather station was set up on an adjoining roof level above the Sibyl Golden Center. Half a dozen sensors on the station record temperature, sunlight, wind, precipitation, and other environmental data, which is transmitted via wireless network to a Web site that can be accessed by any computer on campus.

He is planning another station on the green roof itself so that he can compare its measurements (as well as additional variables, such as water runoff, soil moisture, and temperature) to those taken at the first station. “Environmental science is all about dividing the world up into boxes, and then comparing how these boxes interact,” says Stute. He adds, “A box in this case could be a plot on the green roof where we measure how much mass (e.g. water) and energy are exchanged between the plot and the outside world. The Diana Center roof provides a great opportunity to teach students this basic lesson.”

Both environmental studies and biology students will also use these facilities to conduct independent research projects as part of their senior theses. “The roof will give them another setting to test hypotheses and carry out those projects,” says Stute.

Martin Stute, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Environmental Science, Photo by Asiya Khaki ’09

Inspiration Strikes

When The Diana Center was still under construction in 2009, there were already plans to incorporate a green roof. Callahan, brought in to help decide how the roof could best be implemented, felt strongly that it should be something both students and faculty could use. She got the idea from a Columbia colleague who told her about innovative green roof projects at other schools in the New York area. “Normally green roofs are left in the hands of architects, but these schools were turning them into classrooms for biology and ecology,” says Callahan.

Callahan was enthusiastic about the substantial environmental benefits of a green roof, but she also hoped it could be used for education and enjoyment. “Green roofs can absorb much of the runoff that would otherwise be drained into our sewage system and improve the energy efficiency of buildings,” she says. “But I always think it’s such a waste when people don’t have access to green roofs; I wanted Barnard’s green roof to provide a space for research and community.” A planning committee endorsed the idea, and to gain support it turned to a family with strong connections to Barnard and a history of passion for ecological studies.

A Family to Raise the Roof

After presenting her suggestions, Callahan reached out to Sibyl Golden. She first met Golden through conducting field research with students at the Black Rock Forest, a nearly 4,000-acre site in the Hudson Highlands that is used as a field station for scientific research, education, and conservation. A consortium of some 20 educational and scientific institutes, including Barnard, operates the site. Sibyl Golden is chairman of the consortium, which was founded by her father, William T. Golden.

Callahan suspected that Golden would have a unique interest in supporting a new urban site for students to conduct field research. Besides her personal interest in ecology, Golden also had a rich history of connections to Barnard through her parents and the Black Rock Forest Consortium. Both parents were very involved with the Barnard community. “My mother was a very active alumna, and my father served on the board,” she explains.

Hilary Callahan, associate prof. of biology and director of the Arthur Ross Greenhouse

Over the years William T. Golden helped fund scholarships to Barnard and contributed to the school annually. He passed away in 2007, having previously left an undedicated $1 million gift as part of a capital campaign. Golden agreed to direct the money to the construction of the roof, and she bolstered the support with funds for its ongoing maintenance. The roof ultimately was named in honor of her mother, who died in 1983. “I chose to support the green roof because it is representative of what was important to my mother,” says Sibyl Golden. “I also believe it’s very important for students to be able to conduct field work in such a convenient location—right on campus.”

Callahan expects Barnard’s uses of the Sibyl Levy Golden ’38 Ecological Learning Center to expand and evolve. She envisions new opportunities for her advanced biology students, but she also hopes to reach out to students who are less enthusiastic about studying the sciences. “An indoor lab can seem sterile and a bit dangerous to a non-science major,” she says. “But the roof is in a beautiful location, not intimidating at all, and provides a very hands-on experience.”
Her work there has made her days much richer. “I’ve got a full plate, but I wouldn’t give it up,” says Callahan. “Working [at the center] is becoming one of the best parts of my job.”

—by Harper Willis