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Stanford students center sustainability in Explore Energy, Outdoor houses

The Explore Energy and Outdoor houses, each home to more than 80 students, facilitate discussion about sustainability and conservation.

Zhenwei Gao, ’25, loves the outdoors, but growing up she didn’t have many opportunities to try activities like cross-country skiing.

Explore Energy House residents tour battery mineral recovery complex at Redwood Materials in Nevada

Explore Energy House residents traveled to Redwood Materials in Nevada to tour its new battery mineral recovery complex soon after the Graduate School of Business hosted its founder and CEO, JB Straubel, for the Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture. (Image credit: Holmes Hummel)

“There’s something very soothing about being outdoors,” she said. After arriving at Stanford to study international relations, Gao yearned to meet others interested in outdoor activities.

Gao found that community at the Outdoor House, one of two new academic-themed houses focused on sustainability.

“I feel a lot of energy being in the house because you’re surrounded by people who have these whimsical ideas, and that really inspires me on a lot of levels, like getting into new things I’ve never done before,” Gao said. “It promotes a thinking out-of-the-box perspective of what defines fun.”

For example, in the winter quarter, around 60 students went to Lake Tahoe to learn about the “Keep Tahoe Blue” movement, and to ski, snowshoe, and more. Gao said the trip allowed her to get to know people on a deeper level facilitated by being outdoors, away from social media, and immersed in an experience.

Living at the Outdoor House has also helped Gao find ways to connect international relations with sustainability.

“We’re very privileged to be at this institution where there’s cutting-edge technology, development, and research into what is happening with climate change,” Gao said. “A lot of people do want to do good for the community, and I think this is the most direct way to be able to solve a problem that’s going to be existential for the entire world.”

Trancos is home to Stanford’s Outdoor House, while Junipero (JRo) is home to the Explore Energy House. Both are located in the Wilbur Hall housing cluster on the east side of campus.

The Outdoor House facilitates thought and discussion about sustainability and conservation while providing accessible and inclusive outdoor experiences. The Explore Energy House is Stanford’s first STEM-based theme house and is open to undergraduates committed to actively exploring any aspect of the energy field.

The Outdoor and Explore Energy houses are currently home to more than 80 students each.

Explore Energy House

The Explore Energy House – associated with the Explore Energy program based in the Precourt Institute for Energy – provides students with an inclusive residential community to better investigate and address connections between energy, sustainability, and climate change through interdisciplinary dialogue, exploration, and action.

Phillip Chacon, ’24, is an energy science and engineering student and resident assistant at the Explore Energy House. “I’ve met a lot of great people in the house who are trying to solve climate change and work on sustainability in their own way,” he said. “I’ve loved living here. The sense of community is strong.”

Residents from the Outdoor House attend a day of learning about regenerative ranching at TomKat Ranch, an 1,800-acre grass fed cattle ranch in Pescadero, California.

Residents from the Outdoor House attend a day of learning about regenerative ranching at TomKat Ranch, an 1,800-acre grass fed cattle ranch in Pescadero, California. (Image credit: Varun Shirhatti)

Chacon grew up in Fresno, where air pollution is a significant issue, and this influenced his desire to help protect the environment and eventually address the root causes of climate change.

There are many groups working on sustainability at Stanford, and the choice which path to pursue can be a bit overwhelming, Chacon said. “Living here can help shape your focus in sustainability by exploring your interests, illuminated by peer interactions and faculty engagement,” he explained.

Among a wide array of offerings, the house has weekly seminars with guest speakers in the energy field and field trips to sites such as Stanford’s Central Energy Facility or the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada.

Holmes Hummel is the resident fellow of JRo and the first managing director for Energy Equity and Just Transitions at the Precourt Institute for Energy, which supports and engages faculty across campus from its base in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Hummel said the Explore Energy and Outdoor houses follow in the tradition of other residence halls with long-standing commitments to sustainability: Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, Otero, and Roble Hall. Houses in the cooperative network – especially Synergy and Columbae – also have strong sustainability themes.

As dedicated residence halls, the Outdoor and Explore Energy houses meet growing campus community interests in clean energy revolutions and outdoor education, Hummel explained. Uniquely, the houses include an emphasis on experiential learning through residential education, hosting guest speakers, and traveling to site visits that are otherwise challenging to access, such as to the Stanford Solar Generating Station #2 in Lemoore, California.

Some of the house programming is available to both residents and non-residents. At an April 5 panel discussion, about half of the audience lived in residences outside the theme house.

Also, about a quarter of Explore Energy residents hail from other countries, which helps provide a global perspective to problems and emergent solutions. “There’s definitely an intentional perspective we’re cultivating here,” Hummel said.

Outdoor House

The Outdoor House is a center for exploration, thought, and play focused on natural systems, sustainability, and conservation. Residents are passionate about building their relationship with the outdoors and have opportunities to do so through retreats, adventure trips, and events centered around topics such as the climate crisis or amplifying underrepresented voices and experiences in the outdoors.

Eric Bear, ’23, is an RA at the Outdoor House and a fifth-year coterm student in sustainability science and practice. He grew up in the wooded foothills above Golden, Colorado, where he explored the outdoors and saw firsthand how issues like wildfire prevention can affect residents.

Students successfully organized and applied for the Outdoor House to return as an academic-themed house in 2022 after an initial version was not part of the university’s 2021 transition to the ResX neighborhood residential system.

Residents of the Outdoor House pose for a photo after pulling weeds and making hibiscus lemonade from the fruits of their labor at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm.

Residents of the Outdoor House pose for a photo after pulling weeds and making hibiscus lemonade from the fruits of their labor at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. (Image credit: Courtesy Outdoor House)

Involving faculty leadership supports the longevity of the themed community and can create a more comprehensive approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors, Bear explained. In the fall, about 60 students went to a retreat in Henry W. Coe State Park, where they learned about the region’s Native history and the impact of people’s interactions with the land.

“I think if the house can in any way really open up to folks who maybe didn’t see themselves as outdoorsy before, and start to adopt that identity through shared experiences and community, then that can fundamentally change what people care about,” Bear said. “My hope is that that ripples on into the ways that they show up in their careers later on.”

Colin, ’11, and Heidi, ’12, Campbell are resident fellows at the Outdoor House.

Heidi was a first-generation/low-income (FLI) student at Stanford and said outdoor recreation wasn’t something she grew up with. Her interest in the outdoors started as a high school camp counselor in the redwood forests of Occidental, California, and continued to grow at Stanford where she met Colin, the son of a U.S. Forest Ranger and raised in Montana. Heidi now leads social media communications for the School of Sustainability while she pursues a part-time master’s degree in sustainability through Harvard.

Much of the work at the Outdoor House involves a lens of inclusivity, the Campbells said. “The outdoors and learning about the natural world through the mode of outdoor recreation is not historically or currently very inclusive or accessible,” Colin said. “Our intention is to build the Outdoor House community so that it is the easiest, most welcoming, softest entry point for folks who have never done these sorts of activities.”

That involves increasing accessibility to what can sometimes be costly gear for outdoor activities through support from the Stanford Outdoor Center for subsidized equipment and plans for a gear library or gear swap events. Stanford Recreation and Wellness is one of Outdoor House’s primary institutional sponsors.

Faculty and staff – such as Rob Jackson and Erika Veidis – advise student leaders, teach courses, and spend time at the house for dinner discussions and other activities. Jackson is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor and professor of Earth system science in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Veidis is the Human and Planetary Healthy Program manager for the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.

Students also do practicums on and off campus; for example, participating in hands-on stewardship activities such as weeding and planting new crop rotations at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm or at Vida Verde in San Gregorio.

“They’re just different ways we’re tackling the broad topic of sustainability in our relationship with the natural world,” Heidi Campbell said. “This student community is very passionate about this theme, about this community, and they’re getting to the point where they’re actually initiating some of the events, thinking of who to bring in, and what topics to engage in. That, to us, is a positive indicator of engagement and success.”