Dennis Taylor watches as his students pour cooking oil into an old water heater in the Keck Field Laboratory. In a few hours, the excess oil – waste collected from local restaurants -- will be fuel, and, in that moment, the students will know that they really can affect change in the environment.
As a professor of biological sciences at William and Mary, Taylor could just lecture about biodiesel fuel and the idea of environmental civic responsibility in a classroom. But instead, he chooses to puts those ideas into practice, helping students serve their community by developing and implementing environmental projects. Because of that work, Taylor was recently awarded with one of the 2008 President's Awards for Service to the Community.
Taylor received the award during the College's annual Opening Convocation Ceremony on Aug. 29. Along with a plaque, Taylor received $500, which he donated to the Williamsburg Climate Action Network. Senior Meghan Dunne received the student service award.
As William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III presented the award, he cited Taylor's work with students in the local community on such projects as the biodiesel fuel plant and the Public Commons Project. He also noted that Taylor will help lead the College’s new Committee on Sustainability.
"Professor Taylor is an absolutely outstanding teacher and scholar with an absolute masterful capacity to make important environmental ideas clear to non-scientists and a great talent for turning his students environmental energy into meaningful action," said Reveley.
Taylor has been a professor of marine science at the College’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science since 1991, teaching classes on introductory marine science and marine and environmental policy. Around 1995, he began teaching undergraduates at William and Mary, starting with freshman seminars and then classes in the environmental science program.
Between 2003 and 2004, he began the Public Commons Project as a part of the environmental studies program.
"The idea behind this was to develop an interdisciplinary research environment where undergraduates, and graduate and professional students could develop environmental projects and research products that would be of direct use to citizens groups, local government, etc.," he said. "Over the past few years, projects have provided GIS mapping and surveys, development of a local farm and farmer's market database for the public, cooperative projects on clean energy use to name a few."
In 2005, Taylor developed an environmental freshman seminar for the Sharpe Community Scholars Program called "Living With the Environment."
"Last year we had our best year with two projects I hope to continue - a biodiesel production facility in conjunction with the Unitarian Church in Williamsburg, and the initial stages of a native plants landscape garden at Warhill High School in Williamsburg," he said.
Taylor said that his inspiration for these projects comes from his understanding of how "humans should live in the world."
"This centers on the idea that we are part of a natural community of life, that environmental values are civic values that need to be taught and understood, and that natural resources are the wealth of our lives and culture, giving us the means to improve our quality of life now and for generations to come," he said. "It's a simple idea -- not original by any means -- that seems to me to be at the heart of what we can do to serve our communities."
As Taylor looks toward the future, he said there’s still much to do, but he has the right partners for the job.
"I have great students to work with," he said. "They have a lot of enthusiasm for this, and that alone can take me far and to some unknown places."