The Living Machine™ at Darrow School
Address real-world wastewater treatment and delivery issues. Create a laboratory, demonstration, and teaching resource to support Darrow's mission as a sustainable school featuring a college prep academic program that emphasizes a combination of classroom instruction, hands-on learning, and environmental consciousness. Serve as a visible sign of the commitment of the school (located on the site of an 18th-century Shaker community) to honor its heritage and history of respect for the processes of the natural world, simplicity of design, and stewardship of the land.
How we are doing it
Using a natural ecosystem as a model, the Living Machine, housed in a greenhouse in the Environmental Center, treats wastewater from school dorms and other campus buildings before returning the water to the Hudson River watershed. Nature’s “processors” — a diversity of microorganisms, snails, oxygen, fish, and basic plant life — are used to break down and digest organic pollutants. For a portion of its energy sources, the Living Machine utilizes sunlight, electricity from solar photovoltaic panels, and gravity, all of which are renewable resources.
In addition to processing the school’s wastewater, the Living Machine provides unique hands-on learning opportunities to Darrow students and organizations from outside the school. Students routinely monitor levels of bacteria, phosphorous, nitrogen, and other biological and chemical levels. They examine plant life which grows in treatment tanks throughout the facility and study the concept of environmental sustainability.
Everyone is assigned to the greenhouse for Hands-to-Work (the school's unique service learning program) at least once, all contribute their “direct deposits” every day, and some (~10) more deliberately self-select to participate in sustainability efforts as student leaders.
Since its opening in 1998, the Samson Environmental Center has been visited by more than 500 guests a year wanting to learn more about environmentally friendly solutions to wastewater treatment. Educational, civic, corporate, and environmental groups have explored the Center and have used it as a resource for their own investigations and studies. Displays throughout the Center place the school in the context of its immediate environment and history and of the surrounding watershed, serving to illustrate the global concept of environmental sustainability. Led by student tour guides, visitors learn how the Living Machine works and gain a broad perspective of sustainability in our world today.
What we are learning
Schools need to embrace the fact that not everyone wants to be elbow-deep in wastewater or a swamp. To make them work best, schools need to wrap their collective minds around the idea of a community-based wastewater solution, where waste is dealt with by those who create it. There are much cheaper and less complex ways to move waste away from campus, but none of them come close to approaching the institutional mindset-changing potential of a Living Machine.