OAKLAND -- A little more than a decade ago, some Bishop O'Dowd High School teachers -- along with a lot of their students -- combined vision, shovels, strength and stamina to transform a hillside on the north side of the campus into the Living Lab, 4.5 acres of plants and wildlife that serve as an outdoor science classroom.

The fact is, students long have played a role in shaping the O'Dowd campus into what it is today. Most recently, a group of O'Dowd students helped prepare the materials that will go toward construction of the school's long-anticipated Center for Environmental Studies.

A groundbreaking ceremony will take place at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, with the 5,000-square-foot center slated for completion in December or early 2014. Once complete, the center will offer O'Dowd the opportunity to expand and enhance its science curriculum. The new building -- also on the north side of the campus -- promises to have other perks, too.

"It offers us a beautiful view overlooking San Francisco and the East Bay," O'Dowd President Dr. Stephen Phelps said.

To make way for the environmental center, professional arborists had to remove a number of trees, primarily Monterey and canary pines and coast live oaks that had rimmed the campus for more than five decades.


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The trees had a campus legacy all their own, as students from O'Dowd's class of 1956 -- the second graduating class in school history -- had planted those trees as saplings as part of a detention.

But the felled trees did not have far to go, having been cut into manageable lengths and then crafted into lumber on a portable sawmill brought to the campus. Once cured, the boards will serve as paneling, ceilings, walls, benches and decks for the environmental center. Current students (not serving detention), along with some teachers and parent volunteers, helped in the task.

"We sorted out the boards and put them in snickering -- stacking the wood in a way that allows air to go between the boards," senior Henry Cagigas said.

"It took about four hours to stack (the lumber)," added fellow senior Catherine Vegis. "It was exciting; it was fun. We call it a closed-loop system. We're not going to just throw (the lumber) away, we're going to use it in the building."

Not all parts of the trees were usable for the project. But nothing went to waste. Branches from the oaks went to the nearby Oakland Zoo as food for the elephants, who consider them a delicacy. Pine branches will go into making walking sticks, some of which O'Dowd plans to present to those class of 1956 students who planted the saplings. Finally, any leftover scraps were turned into mulch, which the school plans to use to build soil and protect against weeds and erosion in the Living Lab.

O'Dowd's current seniors will have graduated by the time the environmental center opens. Still, many will leave the school knowing they played a key role in its history.

"In the near future, I would like to return and see how it (the environmental center) develops," Cagigas said.