OAKLAND -- Past generations might recall a time when high school teachers, counselors and administrators routinely emphasized the importance of mathematics and English classes to their college-bound students. And these subjects remain vital parts of the high school curriculum to this day.

But today's students face newer, tougher challenges, especially as topics such as green technology and health care take on increasingly greater significance. As with high schools across the nation, Bishop O'Dowd High School looks to keep pace in the field of science education.

Already, the school boasts an on-campus "Living Lab," a 4.5-acre piece of land that has earned wide acclaim as a garden, wildlife habitat and ecological study area. On Thursday, O'Dowd's science program will take another step into the future with the official groundbreaking for the school's Center for Environmental Studies.

"O'Dowd has a clear history of being a leader in environmental science," said O'Dowd President Dr. Stephen Phelps. "(During the week leading up to Easter), we had kids in the Galapagos and kids in Costa Rica (on science trips). This project very much supports our core value of 'kinship with creation.' "


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Archbishop Alexander Brunett, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Oakland, and Sister Barbara Bray, superintendent of schools for the diocese, are among those expected to attend the 2:30 p.m. groundbreaking for the environmental center, which is scheduled for completion either in December or in early 2014.

When completed, the 5,000-square-foot facility will house three large classrooms, two of them indoor laboratories and the other a covered, open-air facility. The environmental center also will include a greenhouse, mobile kitchen, fire circle and a pizza oven/barbecue.

Conversely, the center also will serve as a monument to O'Dowd's past, as trees felled for the facility will provide the lumber needed for the project. And in keeping with the "green" theme, the environmental center will receive most of its power via roof-mounted panels. And on-site cisterns will collect and store rainwater.

"The science department is thrilled to see this project finally become a reality," science department Chairman Timothy Newman said. "From dreaming about the possibilities of this facility to approaching the start of construction has taken many years and a ton of effort from so many people. There were lots of moments when we thought it might not be able to happen."

Undertaken in partnership with UC Berkeley and Stanford University, this $3.6 million project has a long list of donors. Fundraising so far has netted $2.4 million and will continue into next year.

For O'Dowd, it's an investment that will keep paying off well into the future. In addition to enhancing the current science curriculum, the school plans to expand its current course offerings.

Proposed new courses include vertebrate zoology, sustainable environmental systems and science research/independent study. Units in such subjects as aquatic ecology, soil science, fire ecology, invasive species and sustainable agriculture also will have a home at the center.

"The science department is working on making lots of modifications to current curriculum and considering new possible courses that will enhance the experience and education of our students both in science and (other subjects)," Newman said. "Having CES (the Center for Environmental Studies) as an addition to our community is a very special and exciting opportunity."

In the early 2000s, Bishop O'Dowd science teachers Annie Prutzman (still teaching at the school) and Tom Tyler (now a sustainability and environmental consultant) led a project to turn a vision of a Living Lab into a reality. The environmental center expands that vision.

"Environmental education is vital to the future of our planet," Phelps said. "This also allows us to have more space for our engineering program, which we hope to expand in the future, as one-third of our graduates go on to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects."

"(The environmental center is) an evolution of the Living Lab," added Michael Petrini, O'Dowd's vice president of advancement. "It's an ambitious project, but we're looking at making history here at O'Dowd."