By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

In honor of Earth Day, two students have engineered a new way to get the Lafayette community talking about the environment. Kristen Steudel ’22 (mechanical engineering and economics and mathematics double major) and Remy Oktay ’24 (engineering studies and environmental studies double major) have teamed up to build handmade swings and install them across campus in an effort to help raise climate change awareness and redefine what it means to be an adult.

“We want people to enjoy the outdoors for Earth Month and create a celebration atmosphere, especially when much of the focus on climate change is anxiety-inducing,” Steudel says. “This is a celebration of what we are grateful for and are constantly working to maintain and repair.”

The project, which is titled Why Only Remember the Feeling: Trees Swing, features 12 wooden swings that have been hung from trees in various outdoor locations on campus, from outside Easton Hall all the way to the grounds behind Kirby House. It debuted April 8, and members of the Lafayette and Easton communities are welcome to soak in the fresh air, recharge, reflect on the beauty of nature, and get inspired to be a champion for the environment while enjoying the installation.

Check out the photos below and learn more about the people and purpose behind Why Only Remember the Feeling: Trees Swing.

students sit on the ground by a swing and smile, a group of students is behind them

THE PARTNERSHIP

When Steudel (kneeling, right) was interviewed in fall 2021 for an article about her academic achievements, she and Oktay (standing, center left) worked together to build a swing for the photoshoot, using scrap wood and rope. The duo—who had previously taken the Nonviolence: Theory and Practice First-Year Seminar with Katalin Fabian, professor of government and law—soon got to thinking how fun it would be to put up swings across the Lafayette campus. They also were inspired and encouraged by Fabian to continue building swings after the shoot. Thus, their idea to create Why Only Remember the Feeling: Trees Swing in time for Earth Day was born.

Soon after, Oktay—who, like Steudel, has a passion for infusing creativity and innovation into engineering projects, such as the retired school bus he recently converted into a solar-powered RV—became a Creative and Performing Arts (CaPA) Scholar and received funding that would help bring the swing installation to life. Nestor Gil, associate professor of art, and Jim Toia, director of community-based teaching, joined the effort as project advisers.

decorated blocks of wood are lined up on a table for the swing installation

WHY SWINGS?

“This idea was inspired by a class I was taking two years ago at Lafayette called Unseasonable: Documenting a Changing Climate,” Oktay says. “I realized then that I hadn’t climbed a tree in a while and decided to explore this on campus. Once aloft, I thought I could get friends to value the outdoors more if I could have them experience trees in a new way. This led to a tree-climbing project for the class, which then led to a film I produced about tree climbing with strangers during my COVID gap year, which then led to the Heads Up Climb Up art installation last semester, and now to the connection to swinging in trees as a new way to value and connect with nature and your inner child. Then Kristen and I got talking about this idea of swings, and the project grew from there.”

“Swings are super fun! They are a great way to take in the outdoors and relax with friends between classes,” Steudel says. “I have loved swings from a young age. When I was barely able to walk, my parents would look out the window and see me swinging on the swingset for hours. Swings have been a staple throughout my life as a place to sit with friends or go to think. I wrote my college admissions essay about the impact swings have had on my life, and I titled it ‘My Philosopher’s Seat’ since it was a place I went to think and jumped off with a new perspective. I thought Lafayette would be a better place with swings around campus.”

student ties a rope knot while hanging a swing from a tree

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

Oktay and Steudel spent a day surveying the campus and evaluating trees to determine which locations were suitable and safe for hanging their swings. They chose 12 locations that were centered around the Quad, where students go to unwind. They also created a map of the swing locations that could be shared with the community.

“In February we began prototyping swing designs, and by early March we ordered materials for building,” Steudel says. Having previously consulted an arborist for a different project, Oktay employed several tricks of the trade he had learned regarding rope setup and retrieval. “This helped us plan the setup process, but also helped us design a new type of swing,” Oktay says. “Three of the swings use a new method of running on pulleys. We knew that climbing all the trees was out of the question, and we wanted to ensure that none of the trees’ bark would be damaged when the swing was in use.”

The swings were crafted out of large planks of white oak and honey locust wood, which were cut down to size and finished in the sculpture studio at Williams Visual Arts Building.

students tie knots in rope as they hang a swing from a tree

A TEAM EFFORT

When the time came to install the swings, Steudel and Oktay didn’t work alone: More than 100 student volunteers helped throughout the build process, and representatives from 45 student organizations joined the effort to decorate the swings using Sharpies. The guidance from Gil and Toia, the support from the Art Department and the Engineering Department’s machine shop, and the help of the Office of Sustainability and Student Government also were integral in the coordination of the project. Teams of students worked together to coat the swings with tung oil to weatherproof them and seal the unique designs, assemble the swing brackets, and hang the swings. Members of the baseball team pitched in with the swing setup by helping to launch throw weights attached to tow lines into selected locations in the trees for the ropes to hang from.

Remy Oktay and other students with a ladder on the Quad near Skillman

BRINGING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER IN CELEBRATION OF EARTH

“The main goal of this project is to bring together the campus community and bring people outdoors to enjoy nature during Earth Month and Earth Day,” Steudel says. “It’s all about bringing a joyful perspective to life and celebrating the Earth in hopes that when people have the opportunity to consider sustainability, they will think about how much joy Earth brings them and aspire to protect that beauty.”

“Earth Day, in my mind, is all about creating that feeling of protection and love for our planet,” Oktay adds. “We want people to hopefully see new value in the outdoors and come to love it in new ways. We hope that the fact that this was a community project now has helped students feel a sense of ownership and respect both for the swings and the trees that support them. We protect what we love and feel a connection to, and we hoped when planning this work that this would help students feel a new desire to protect the trees on College Hill and beyond.”

two students sit on a swing and smile, blue sky behind them

BEYOND EARTH DAY

Oktay and Steudel are hopeful that in addition to motivating Lafayette community members to take action against climate change, the swings will serve as a source of joy and inspiration in other ways too.

“I hope this work challenges the idea of social norms of what it means to move and act like an adult,” Oktay says. “When starting the tree-climbing project two years ago, a friend said to me, gesturing to a tree that a group of us had just hopped down from, ‘We’re adults now; we don’t do this anymore,’ and that’s when it hit me that this was a norm worth challenging. I hope that everyone on campus is reminded that moving and playing like a kid has both mental and physical health benefits.”

“Swings have been a great place for me to think, and I hope that having them installed in a place like Lafayette, where new ideas are constantly flowing through hundreds of peoples’ minds, will instill inspiration for many,” Steudel adds. “I hope that people will come out of the library or Pardee for a study break and let their minds refresh and come back to their work with a new perspective.”

Smiling students gathered outside Lafayette College's Pardee Hall during installation of swings on campus

THE LAFAYETTE COMMUNITY RESPONDS

“I have had professors, students, parents, and local Easton community members all tell me about how much they love the swings and how they help them feel relaxed and happy, and think more clearly,” Steudel says. “I am so happy that people love the swings. I am so glad the swings have brought people together.”

“A friend stopped me the other day and shared an experience he had with the swings, wanting to remain anonymous but still wanting to get the message out,” Oktay says. “He said, ‘I had just gone through the worst breakup of my life the day you set up the swings, and I spent all night on them, and it helped me pull through. I didn’t harm myself because there are swings.’ This was one of many responses I have gotten from community members speaking to the mental health benefits of the project. That was everything and more for me. Being able to help students relieve stress, reconnect with the outdoors, and relive the carefree attitude and joy of adolescence is exactly what we were going for.”

Kristen Steudel carries a swing

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Swings, Steudel says, could very well have a place in her personal future. She would like to explore opportunities to either build them in other communities or use them to create other kinds of art.

“With four more semesters to go for me at Lafayette,” Oktay adds, “I am really excited to continue to engage my CaPA funding in collaborative community art that explores this theme of connecting with the outdoors and the blissful joy of play.”

Categorized in: Art, Campus life, Community, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Featured News, News and Features, Photo gallery, Students, Sustainability

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use basic HTML tags and attributes.