The Stream

Posts under ‘School of the Environment’

Environmental Studies at 50

The study of the environment, either as environmental studies or environmental science, is now so mainstream in higher education that it is difficult to grasp that at one time such studies were not a part of the college or university curriculum. Environmental Studies as a major was born here at Middlebury College 50 years ago this fall, when a small group of visionary faculty led by Howard “Gene” Woodin convinced then-president James Armstrong to approve the creation a major offered by a cross-departmental collaboration among Biology, Chemistry, Geography, and Geology (and soon joined by Economics). This was in 1965. Only three years after the publication of Silent Spring, and five years before Earth Day. It was the first such major in the country.

Now, 50 years later, such programs have emerged in virtually all colleges and universities in response to the growing awareness not only of the importance of such issues for society but of its deep and broad roots within traditional academic discourse.

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Middlebury’s Environmental Studies Program as well as 50 years of commitment to environmental engagement.

The Middlebury School of the Environment may only be two years old, but it is a product of 50 years of leadership in environmental education, pedagogy, and practice. All of us associated with the School of the Environment owe a great deal to the pioneers who, 50 years ago, had the vision to craft a new emphasis for higher education. And it is my intention to ensure that we follow with the same commitment to envisioning a better environmental future for all.

Getting ready for 2016

For most students at college or university, the new academic year began just recently.  But even though Summer 2016 seems far in the future, we’ve already started preparing for the 2016 session of the Middlebury School of the Environment.  Our session this past summer was very successful, and we’re excited to be able to build on that success for the coming year.  All of our faculty will be returning, allowing us to once again offer the very best summer environmental studies program available anywhere.  Coverage will once again include environmental science, policy, humanities, and arts, integrated with each other and with leadership training that will help you be effective in doing something positive for the world and with your career.

If you are looking for a summer environmental studies program offered by one of the top schools for environmental studies and sustainability in the world, the Middlebury School of the Environment is for you.  Come join us!

Understanding Place reflection #1

Welcome, all students, to the 2015 SoE!  We shared a great hike up Snake Mountain and a beautiful, moving opening ceremony last weekend, and we are all very excited about the next six weeks. Now it’s time to dive into our work!

We have been exploring definitions, perceptions, and perspectives of ‘place’ this week in the Understanding Place course. Please describe two concepts or experiences you have discovered this week, and how they have contributed to your understanding of place. Also, share one still unanswered question or concern that this week’s classes and/or readings have raised for you.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.




The Story of Vermont

One of the questions that is often asked about studying at the Middlebury School of the Environment is, “Aren’t there more exotic places in the world to travel and study than Vermont?”  Inarguably, the answer to that question is “yes.”  As I write this post, I can glance up to the wall in my home office and view the montage of photographs that record some of the many places around the world where I have had the privilege of working: Australia, Ghana, China, Slovenia, Brazil, and Costa Rica, to name a few.

But with respect to preparing myself to make a difference, to make the world a better place, none of them offer the depth of experience and the breadth of engagement as does Vermont.  Vermont is a landscape where both cultural and ecological narratives visibly combine to shape current environmental conditions.  Further, it is a place where investigation of environmental realities — through interviews with stakeholders and policymakers, and field study of the land and water — can easily lead to an exploration of possible futures.

Vermont is more than just a beautiful place.  It is a place that almost uniquely lends itself to studying providing a foundation for understanding how one can help create a better, more sustainable future for all.

I’ve spent the past 30 years living and working here, developing an effective environmental curriculum and pedagogy that weave together stories of the people, land, and water of this place.  The School of the Environment is a reflection of that.  Another reflection is seen in my writing, often with my friend and colleague Chris McGrory Klyza.  Chris and I recently published the 2nd edition of our book, The Story of Vermont: a natural and cultural history, which expands on all of why I think Vermont is the perfect place to travel and study.

We were recently interviewed about the book on the Vermont Public Radio show, Vermont Edition.  If you want to hear more about what’s special about Vermont, have a listen.

Faculty for 2015

I am extremely happy to introduce three of the faculty who will join the Middlebury School of the Environment this coming summer.  Each will participate in the core courses, either in the introductory track or the intermediate/advanced track, and each will offer an elective in their area of specialization.  I want to introduce each of them here briefly, and provide links to their full bios and course descriptions on the SoE web site.

Holly_PetersonDr. Holly Peterson joins the SoE as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science.  She is on the faculty of Guilford College in North Carolina in the Department of Geology and Environmental Studies.  With a specialization in hydrogeology, she is particularly interested in water quality and encouraging people to view their lives and societies through the lens of the watershed in which they live.  At the SoE this summer, she will teach an elective on Environmental Pollution (which will involve a mix of field, lab, and computer-based work) as well as team-teach the core course on Understanding Place, our interdisciplinary course the brings together the ecological and cultural narratives that are needed to understand the environmental present and potential futures of any place.

Joe WittDr. Joseph Witt will be the new Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities.  Joe comes to us from the faculty of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Mississippi State University, where he offers a curriculum that focuses on religion and nature.  His research includes the study of the place of religions in the Appalachian anti-mountaintop removal movement of the early 21st century.  He will join Holly Peterson in teaching Understanding Place and will offer his own elective on Religion, Nature, and Justice.

Curt GervichDr. Curt Gervich, from the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at SUNY Plattsburgh, joins us as the new Assistant Professor in Environmental Social Science.  At SUNY Plattsburgh, Curt teaches courses in environmental leadership, law and policy, and sustainability, and he is trained as an environmental planner, with expertise in decision-making and leadership.  This summer, he will teach the Systems Thinking Practicum and an elective on Wicked Environmental Problems.

We’re not done yet, however.  We plan on adding one more person to the faculty whose specialization is in the realm of the environmental arts.  Stay tuned for updates on this position!

Summer 2014 … in film

Last summer, we had the pleasure of hosting a film production crew from Seedlight Pictures, who produced an amazing short film about the School of the Environment.  Apart from the very high quality of the film itself, what I like most is its narrative emphasis on the students and the experiences they had.  As the director of the SoE, I can easily wax rhapsodic about the curriculum, the students, the teachers, and the setting for hours, but this film does more to capture and convey the experience than anything I can say.


The Middlebury School of the Environment, by Seedlight Pictures

If you’re at all curious about what the SoE is actually like, you should really check this out.  It’s a great way to spend 4 minutes and 40 seconds.

And a thousand thank yous to Bridget Besaw and Tahria Sheather of Seedlight for their work in helping the students tell their story.

Continuing Middlebury’s tradition

Last Tuesday, the Trustees of Middlebury College announced the appointment of our new president, Dr. Laurie L. Patton, currently Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.  Dr. Patton will take over as the college’s 17th president in our more than 200 year history.

Environmental initiatives — both academic and operational — have been at the core of Middlebury’s tradition for a long time, since at least the founding of our Environmental Studies Program in 1965, and our efforts here to innovate and diversify our environmental efforts have grown through the administrations of at least the past five presidents.  But the naming of a new president is always brings with it the potential for change, sometimes significant, in direction and emphasis, so I don’t think I am alone in saying that I was waiting for the trustees’ announcement with great anticipation.

It gives me great pleasure to say that, based on her comments in her inaugural address to the college community on Tuesday, Dr. Patton will continue Middlebury’s tradition of leadership and innovation in environmental curricula and operations.  Her speech emphasized three important pillars for the liberal arts in the 21st century: innovation, adaptation, and integration, all three of which have long been hallmarks of environmental program here.

However, she even went further and spoke about what she saw as the “seven virtues” of Middlebury College.  And Number Two among those virtues? Environmental stewardship, and in her justification for that, she spoke about the School of the Environment.  By name.  All of us who have been working to bring the SoE to life over the past few years, and everyone involved with the School leading up to and during its launch last summer, especially the students who made it so successful, couldn’t be happier.  It’s a testament to all of vision and hard work that has come before … and a signal that the best is yet to come.

Check out the video of her speech.  Her discussion about environmental stewardship comes at 7:14.  We look forward to welcoming her to campus … and to the School of the Environment … next summer.

Applications for 2015 now being accepted

It’s official!  Applications for the 2015 session of the Middlebury School of the Environment are now being accepted.

We have great plans in store for the coming summer, recreating the success of last summer with our intermediate/advanced undergraduate curriculum and building in an exciting new direction with an introductory undergraduate curriculum appropriate for college students with no previous environmental coursework.

Both tracks will involve two core courses that emphasize practical experience and interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental issues.  Both tracks include a choice of electives from a range of environmentally relevant disciplines.  And both tracks integrate the curriculum with leadership training and professional workshops.

More information about specific courses and faculty will be posted both on the official web site and here in The Stream in the coming weeks, so check back often to get the latest news.

Spread the word and check it out! And apply now!

Opening ceremony

This afternoon, under blue skies and bright sun, we held the official opening ceremony for the 1st Middlebury School of the Environment.  Honored guests includes Ron Liebowitz, President of Middlebury College, Michael Geisler, Vice-President of Graduate and Special Programs (of which the School of the Environment is a part), and Nan Jenks-Jay, Dean of Environmental Affairs and the person who made sure that the dream of bringing the School of the Environment to life did not die.

President Liebowitz addressing the studentsAnd, of course, the most honored participants of the ceremony, were the students.  These were my comments to them this afternoon:

You already understand that you are a select group, the founding students of the Middlebury School of the Environment. This is an initiative 19 years in the making, building upon this college’s 50 years of commitment and excellence in environmental education.

I envy you. I have been privileged a few times in my life to have participated in the beginning of an initiative, and I know how powerful it is – years and miles down the road – to be able to claim participation and shared ownership of a true beginning. For this, you will always be able to say that you were among those who were the first.

But what, exactly, are you the first of? That will be revealed to you over the next six weeks as you engage with what lies before you, intellectually, emotionally, and somatically.

You are being called up to let go of any expectation you might have of engagement through modes that have unfortunately become too common in higher education today: modes characterized by passivity, characterized by expectations of being led, like boats bobbing in the water, to wherever the current takes you. The world has had enough of that, and you have chosen to come here this summer to prepare yourselves not simply for a life of the mind but for a life of meaning, to prepare yourselves to help change the world.

We invite you to be co-creators of your experience, to join with us in looking under the hood, if you will, of this experience. Not to critique it as a consumer would, but as someone intent on honing her or his skills at building something new and leading an initiative that you intend will make a positive change.

More than any other educational experience you’ve ever had, we invite your full engagement in making the structure of your experience part of your education.

At the risk of seeming to be a parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here at the beginning of your time with the School of the Environment, I would like you to reflect on four questions.

The first question is: Where do you come from? I know the answers that you all would give if you were asked that in a traditional setting: Lake Forest, IL; Shelburne Falls, MA; Kabul, Afghanistan; Basalt, CO; Potomac, MD; San Francisco, CA; Bedford, NH; Conway, AR; Glenside, PA; Heyward, WI; Wilson, WY; Vienna, VA. But consider what the narratives are of those places, both the cultural and ecological, that led them to be what they are today. Consider what makes them unique, consider what connects them to the broader world, and consider their interconnections with the more-than-just human world. So consider the question: Where do you come from?

The second question is: Where are you now? You know that you are at a place called the Organic Farm, which is part of a place called Middlebury College. But what are the narratives of this place, what kind of system is it a part of, and what does it represent. Fundamentally, why did we choose this place for the opening ceremony? It was not chosen at random, but rather deliberately because it is a visual manifestation of an environmental system that you need to better visualize and understand. It is one that involves food, energy, transportation, ecological diversity, material cycles, water, the built environment, and human engagement all interacting through time. So consider how you need to train your mind and all of your senses to recognize these things wherever you find yourself in the future.

The third question is: Why are you here? I know from your applications that you come to this School for many personal reasons: to both deepen and broaden your education, to prepare for new career directions, and to gain the leadership skills you will require you to not simply to move forward into the world with knowledge, but to do so with the skills and confidence to do something wonderful with that knowledge. But as you engage with your time here, I hope you will continue to ask the question of why you are here, to both broaden and deepen your answer as you encounter things you have never thought of before. However, I do not want to burden you with unreasonable expectations, especially of your path in life, and I encourage you to always hold close to your heart the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

And the final question is: Who do you wish to speak for? Being an adult, being a citizen, involves coming into yourself as a speaker for others, an advocate for rights, responsibilities, and aspirations that transcend simply your own, but those that encompass others who do not have your opportunities and abilities. For whom do you wish to speak? Your family? Your religious community? Your country? The oppressed? The dispossessed? Endangered species and ecosystems? Future generations? The choice is yours, but here at the Middlebury School of the Environment we encourage you actively to make the choice. And with such a choice you then see your true path and your true calling.

Our classroom

Snake Mountain 2One of our activities on the second day of the School was to climb to the summit of nearby Snake Mountain, about 1,000 feet above the floor of the Champlain Valley and with a spectacular view of the landscape that will be the focus of much of our curriculum this summer.  Note the interplay of both cultural and natural forces that shape the landscape: farmland, wood lots, transportation networks, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains to the west.  Over the semester, we will be unpackaging many of the narratives of this place, narratives which influence the environmental realities of the present as well as the options for creating a sustainable future.

But for the students on this day, the real pleasure was in stretching our legs, getting introduced to the landscape that will be home for the next six weeks, and enjoying the first day of summer.

And the weather was pretty darn spectacular, as well.

Snake Mountain 1


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