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The Living Lab

A Penn State education goes far beyond mastering classroom material. The University’s 30 million square feet of facilities provide a “living laboratory” for academic enhancement, research partnerships and student engagement. 

The Living Lab is where Penn State Office of Physical Plant helps Penn State students, faculty and staff use on-campus buildings, grounds and expertise as resources for learning. 

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Objectives of the Living Lab

  • Enhance the student experience. 

  • Create an educational framework for students and faculty to address University and community challenges.

  • Expand current and create new partnerships that align OPP’s expertise with the University’s teaching, research, and service.

  • Leverage existing resources across the University to increase the value of OPP’s services and improve operational effectiveness.

  • Contribute substantively to the Council on Engaged Scholarship, Sustainable Communities Collaborative, and Reinvention Fund.

Project Types

Living Lab projects exist within all three of the University’s focus areas of teaching, research, and service. 

Academic Enhancement—Teaching
OPP engages with specific courses to provide out-of-classroom opportunities that enhance students’ for-credit academic experiences.

Research Partnerships—Research
OPP engages with student and faculty research to provide test beds for exploration and discovery.

Student Engagement—Service
OPP engages with students’ residential and extra-curricular experience to connect them with their physical environment.

Academic Enhancement Projects

OPP engages with specific courses to provide out-of-classroom opportunities that enhance students’ for-credit academic experiences.

Berks' Gaige Building

The Gaige Technology and Business Innovation Building at Penn State Berks has been awarded LEED gold level certification. Among the innovative design elements noted in the LEED award is the collaboration with Penn State students in the advanced business writing class that resulted in a signage program promoting a "Sustainability Awareness" program.

Steam Plant ToursPenn State's steam plant

For almost 10 years, the Office of Physical Plant workers at the West Campus Steam Plant have gotten special visitors throughout the spring semester. The guests are upper-level engineering students getting a first-hand look at a power plant in action. Professor Gita Talmage says the collaboration with OPP is a one-of-a-kind experience for her students and gives them knowledge that can't be found in a textbook. The course is called Mechanical Engineering 402: Power Plants.

Smarter Carpet Initiative

In 2010, MBA students in the Smeal College of Business worked with OPP and Procurement Services to launch an ambitious collaborative effort: to develop a new standard for carpet purchasing, installation, and removal that would reduce the first cost by 3-5% and the total cost of ownership by an estimated 20% and ensure 100% of Penn State carpeting never sees a landfill.

Research Partnership Projects

OPP engages with student and faculty research to provide test beds for exploration and discovery.

LED Growth Chamber LED growth chamber

Penn State researchers from theatre arts and horticulture have collaborated with OPP to fine-tune lighting for improved plant growth and energy conservation in greenhouses. The research team explored how LED technology could reduce energy consumption in plant growth chambers, which could lead to its use in greenhouses and plant-growth rooms. The team anticipated and found great potential savings for both Penn State operations and research.

Biodegradable Hydraulic Oil

Elevator at Penn State that uses biodegradable hydraulic oil

More than 100 elevators on the University Park campus require hydraulic fluid, traditionally petroleum-based and problematic when one springs a leak. Lysa Holland, an engineer within Environmental Health and Safety, connected with Dr. Joseph Perez, an expert on bio-based fuels, to develop a soy-based elevator fluid as an alternative to the 17,000 gallons of hydraulic fluid used.

The Living Filter

The “Living Filter” is a 600-acre area near the University Park Airport that is crisscrossed with pipes and studded with giant sprinklers. Treated wastewater is piped 2.5 miles from University Park’s wastewater treatment plant to the site where it’s distributed through an irrigation system. The soil, along with the crops and trees on the land, naturally filters the remaining nutrients from about 2 million gallons of pre-treated wastewater effluent every day. The site has been used for student and faculty research for nearly 50 years.


Student Engagement Projects

OPP engages with students’ residential and extra-curricular experience to connect them with their physical environment.

Hort Woods LEED Hort Woods Childcare Center

The Child Care Center at Hort Woods is the first Penn State building ever awarded a LEED Platinum certification. The trees behind the Center are naturally 10 degrees cooler than the building. A weather station in the woods tracks the temperature and alerts the children to activate the automatic opening of upper windows and overhead fans. This natural ventilation, the use of recycled materials, rainwater collection and reuse, and natural daylighting all educate the children and staff about sustainability. Meanwhile, Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development uses the Center as a living lab for curriculum development. 

Runkle Hall Zero-Waste Pilot

OPP and Housing worked together on a significant recycling pilot initiative by and for students in Runkle Hall. Students there are venturing to become zero waste—reducing trash output to zero—through comprehensive recycling of plastic, glass, metal cans, paper, polystyrene, and compost.

Dow SISCA Microbial Fuel Cell

Microbial fuel cellA team of Penn State graduate students are addressing a global health crisis, lack of access to potable drinking water, by developing a microbial fuel cell that processes wastewater and generates an electrical current. Through a pilot at the wastewater treatment plant, Learning Factory students worked to develop the concept into a physical piece of affordable hardware. The team hopes to use the technology to improve drinking water and sanitation in Africa and to help local communities become more healthy and sustainable.