Designing the Future

Visioning Education for the Environment and Sustainability in the 21st Century at Middlebury

Visioning Session with Gary Nabhan


In attendance:  Dan Brayton, Jack Byrne, Molly Constanza-Robinson, John Isham, Nan Jenks-Jay, Chris Klyza, Marc Lapin, Avery McNiff, Diane Munroe, Peter Ryan, Steve Trombulak, Janet Wiseman.

Gary Nabhan, author, farming and food advocate, and W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, visited Middlebury as the 2014 Environmental Writer-in-Residence.

Gary met with Environmental Studies faculty and staff to discuss the future of environmental education. To begin the conversation, Gary asked attendees to direct the conversation by raising a question or idea.

Steve Trombulak asked, “What should we be doing that’s different for the next 50 years? What have we been too narrowly focused on?” Peter Ryan brought up the challenge of balancing environmental science core concepts with global concepts in introductory environmental studies classes. Marc Lapin asked how professors could incorporate less traditional ways of knowing into curriculums. Molly Constanza-Robinson shared the need to train the next generation of scientists to think more broadly while being informed citizens. Diane Munroe asked, “What can we do more deeply with communities?”  Dan Brayton shared his goal of serving majors with core courses while expanding the scope of what we imagine the’ environment’ to be. Nan Jenks-Jay asked about how the Franklin Environmental Center can develop in the future to better meet the needs of students.

Gary started the conversation talking about the popularity of dystopia stories amongst students today and shared the current three brutal assumptions about the world:

  1. There is a potential of eco disruption, resource scarcity, political disruption. Our quality of life and economic wellbeing may dip.
  2. The way people absorb information is different.
  3. Science is done as a western discipline, but there are more science students and scientists that are not a part of western culture. There are now different cultures and different perspectives in the science field and it is not culturally neutral.

Gary then asked, “How do we use a campus as a laboratory? How do we train our students to be co-designers for positive change in communities that are more stricken by societal and economic changes?” Gary provided an example of participatory design and designers for change:

Gary proposed the idea that we’re all designers of the future and we can all contribute with our own passion or discipline.

The conversation then focused on connecting with the community. Gary stated that social problems in Vermont are not always visible to visitors. He observed that Middlebury students are mature and global thinkers. They have gotten outside their comfort zone are there is a willingness to take on new challenges.

Gary recommended the place-based education model and asked,  “How can we do something within 30 miles that’s so phenomenal, students can take what’s learned elsewhere? How do you work with communities to create solutions and work with nuanced issues that relate to issues in other places?”

Steve raised the issue of prejudging what changes will occur, stating that change is evident, dystopia or utopia. The comment sparked more conversation on this topic. Gary stated that change is already happening. One driver of change (ex. global warming) will not trump everything. Dan then stated that the conversation began with dystopias and Middlebury is considered a utopia space inside a utopia state. Dan recommended that we flip this and asked us to think about problems surrounding Middlebury. He also commented that utopian thinking has a place in critique and action, providing the example of imagining a new college farm that provides an effective local food source.

The conversation then shifted to the topic of failure. Chris Klyza noted that students may feel they have failed win recent activist efforts and asked, “How do we help students deal with their failure?”

Gary advised the room to be good role models and display a mature sense of activism that is not about instant gratification.

Pete Ryan noted that students are more despairing about the present and future and so it is important to share success stories.

Gary wrapped up the conversation saying that he has changed his toolkit and lens to teach students. Humility is a part of this process. Gary asked, “Are the paradigms I’ve been using the right scale? What are my comfortable behaviors I have to give up?” Gary shared that he has had to give up his own assumptions about what he should teach and what students want. He reminded the room that there will be a lot of self-questioning and that it’s “hard work for you guys to take on.”






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