Author Archives: Amy Prescott

What do you think?

I’ve been asked that question so many times over the past four years: what do you think?

Yesterday I met with about 15 other junior and senior environmental studies majors to work with a few of the administrators in charge of developing the curriculum in order to figure out how best to serve the academic needs of students interested in our field. Environmental studies is an interdisciplinary course of study at Midd, one in which all students take a core set of classes related to the environment before focusing on one particular subject area, like conservation biology or nonfiction writing, in greater depth. This approach provides students with a strong basis in the environmental field, but it’s also quite challenging because the program is, by design, so broad. A survey from last year’s graduating seniors in environmental studies revealed that students had hoped to have more opportunities to develop leadership skills, and yesterday’s discussion focused on how best to do that.

Each of us had taken a course called GIS, Geographic Information Systems, and had found the process of learning how to use Esri’s ArcGIS software suite and using it to solve spatial problems extremely difficult, frustrating, and rewarding beyond belief. The course forced us to dive into the problem solving process, an approach that led us to experiment in different ways before coming to any conclusions. The lab component of the course encouraged both working together as well as courageously branching out on our own, and all of us agreed that the experience, though not by any means easy, had been one of the best parts of the ES curriculum.

Because we all learned so much from GIS, we brainstormed ways to make other classes in the program more similar in their approach to teaching. Several of the core ES classes, including Natural Science in the Environment and Nature’s Meanings, have a strong lecture component as well as time for a lab section or discussion. We agreed that using some of this course time for independent or small group projects would encourage students to find their place in the program and to explore topics of deep interest to them. An administrator recorded our entire conversation and asked us detailed questions about what we would like the program to look like in the future. Our input, as students, was given high value and truly respected, something very common at Middlebury.


All of my roommates

I find myself talking about my roommates in every information session I give. I live with four other girls in one of the five person Atwater Suites (most house four students but one of my roommates got a great number, 12, in room draw) and we make for a pretty diverse bunch.

At some point in my session I’ll start talking about sports, or the arts, or foreign language study, or Education in Action, and start saying, “One of my roomates…”

  • is a coxswain on the crew team
  • is a joint English/Theatre major (and another is a joint English/History major)
  • is studying Arabic, Chinese, and keeping up with the French she learned in high school
  • just got accepted to a doctoral program at William and Mary
  • is from Texas (or Maine, Mississippi, or Washington state)
  • has worked as an actor/interpreter at colonial Williamsburg
  • has worked in the US Embassy in Romania
  • has worked harvesting peas on large farms
  • knows how to bowhunt

After I get going talking about my closest friends, a lot of the parents and students seem to wonder just how many roommates I have because I rattle off all the different things they do. It’s true that we like to stay busy with our school work and extracurricular activities, but we find plenty of time to get together both for work and for fun. Most afternoons and evenings we’ll settle down in our living room to get going on our homework, occasionally stopping to share something interesting we read or to direct everyone’s attention to the latest Daily Puppy, and on weekends we try to make it to each other’s plays and regattas. Living together this year has been wildly fun and has strengthened our friendship.

Hints of spring?

This past weekend I traveled to Hillsborough, NJ to compete with Middlebury’s cycling team in the first race of the spring season. The forecast called for rain, but the minute we pulled up to Saturday’s race course, the sun came out and we jumped out of the van eager to catch some rays. The other teams thought we were crazy for running around in shorts, but after a Vermont winter, even one as mild as this year’s, 50 degrees felt like summer.

The group of us competed in a road race through New Jersey horse country on Saturday and raced around a park in a circuit race on Sunday. Winter is a tough time to be a cyclist-even if the ground is clear of snow, cold temperatures and the possibility of ice patches on the roads lead all but the most daring of souls to move training rides inside. After months of staring at a dorm room wall while pedaling in place, the open road was pure bliss. Driving back to Midd last night, I couldn’t wait to get back outside on my bike, but I woke up this morning to find a fresh dusting of snow. I plan on enjoying this last bit of winter then willing it away–it’s time for spring to come!

But you’re not an English major…

Yesterday the professor for the English senior seminar I’m taking, Booker Prize Fiction, called me out for critiquing the lyrical repetition of the novel we’d just read, something most of my classmates found beautiful but that I found verbose and overwrought.

“Well, as a non-English major, I’m not really sure you can say that,” he joked, and my friends and I joined in laughing. I turned bright red and was a bit taken aback–hadn’t he told me just the other day how much he valued my contributions to the course? I stood my ground and maintained that the novel, one that had won the most valuable literary prize in Britain, felt too forced and just didn’t do much for me. Ten minutes later, with the class back in heated debate over some other element of the novel, everything had been forgotten, but I kept thinking about how I, a science major, was taking a seminar course for senior English majors…and was the only one of the fifteen of us who hadn’t had at least twelve or fourteen literature courses over the past six semesters.

Part of the beauty of attending a liberal arts college like Middlebury is having the chance to take courses outside of your comfort zone. I’d taken at least two lab-based courses every semester for the past three years, and this semester I had the chance to step out of BiHall, home to science courses, labs, and majors, to try something completely different. I’ve always loved to read and love to unwind with a novel after a day in class, but I hadn’t been able to fit a literature course into my schedule since my first semester at Midd, when I took both my First Year Seminar, Children’s Literature in Society, and a German literature course called The Exile Experience. This term, I read an award-winning novel each week before spending three hours each Tuesday afternoon debating its merits with 14 very opinionated English majors. I wouldn’t change that for anything, and I’m looking forward to taking two literature courses, one on global youth literature and one on American science fiction writing, in the spring semester.


It’s snowing!

Just kidding! It’s 50 degrees and sunny out, two full days into November. However, snow is an inevitable fact of life at Midd.

The season’s first snowfall came on Thursday, October 27th this year… as early as I remember it. Fortunately, the white stuff didn’t stick around long enough for any real accumulation to occur, at least not until Saturday (and even then it was gone by Sunday morning). Many students at Midd come from climates where they’ve never encountered snow before, but even for those who’ve been hitting the slopes and building snowmen for their entire lives, there are a few things to keep in mind about the Vermont winter:

1. You will need snowboots. Get the big, knee-high furry ones. Your feet will love you. If kids laugh at you, remind them that you go to school in Vermont.
2. You will need a coat. A warm one. A serious one. The kind of coat you’d wear to the North Pole (or the South Pole, even). Get the big, knee-length down one with the fur (real or fake; it’s up to you) around the hood. Looking good is half the battle.
3. Pick a hot beverage to enjoy frequently. Hot cocoa, tea, coffee…any of the above will do the trick. Maybe even branch out and try some mate or spiced apple cider.

Steps for going outside:
1. Drink a mug of your favorite hot beverage.
2. Put on boots. (Bonus points for warm socks! Bonus bonus points for warm socks made in Vermont (i.e. Darn Tough or Vermont Sock Company)).
3. Put on coat.
4. Develop mental fortitude. A lot of it.
5. Venture outside into the brisk winter air.

Once you’re outside, chances are you’ll realize that it’s not that bad after all. Snow is kind of nice. It’s white and soft and tastes pretty good, like marshmallows.

You’ll be a pro at the cold weather by the time J-Term rolls around. Just believe in yourself!

Sweet as maple syrup

An admissions counselor once asked me what separates Middlebury from similar small liberal arts colleges.

Well, Middlebury is in Vermont, and as such we have come to expect extremely high standards of maple syrup and other maple-based products. Next question, please.

The level of reverence given to the mighty maple could seem silly to those uninitiated in the sugar-happy way of life, but maple products make up a significant portion of Vermont’s economy-over $30 million per year! Passing off sub-par, adulterated products has always been looked down upon by Vermont natives, but Vermont’s senators are hoping to take things one step further and make false advertising of supposedly “maple” products a felony. I’d be all for the new law, as maple sugaring, the process of collecting maple sap and boiling it (and boiling it and boiling it and boiling it…) to make syrup takes a lot of work. As part of my environmental chemistry research with Professor Costanza-Robinson, I’ve had the chance to spend many brisk spring afternoons collecting samples of maple sap, and I’ve even tried making my own syrup with some of the leftover sap.

Maple sugaring season happens in early-to-mid spring when temperatures dip below freezing at night but are above freezing during the day. This change in temperature keeps large amounts of sap flowing into either the traditional buckets hung from trees or into the plastic vacuum lines used by large scale (several thousand tree) operations. Molly’s lab is examining the relationship between soil characteristics, mineral content in sap, and syrup flavor compounds and has been analyzing the sap from five trees on campus for the past several years. Each afternoon one of the students in lab collects 50 milliliters of sap from each tree and can either dump out the extra sap or use it to make maple syrup.

Making maple syrup isn’t a difficult process; you simply start to boil sap and keep it going. However, it’s also a bit disheartening, as it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Lugging an enormous water cooler full of sap from the woods on the edge of campus then spending three or four hours in a hot kitchen only to end up with just enough syrup for one pancake has given me an immense appreciation for “real” maple sugarers. As much as I love that sweet maple taste, I’d rather leave the work to the experts and pick up my syrup either at the local farmers’ market or in the Middlebury College dining halls.

My favorite way to eat my maple syrup is to mix it with plain yogurt for a delicious, just-sweet-enough treat. I may or may not do this almost every morning for breakfast…

In any case, I’d like to leave you with a parting verse by John G. Saxe that appeared in the Vermont Department of Agriculture Bulletin in 1915:

“Men, women, maple sugar and horses;
The first are strong, the latter fleet,
The second and third are exceedingly sweet,
And all are uncommonly hard to beat.”

Dining at Midd

Middlebury has the perfect campus meal plan…none at all.

The three dining halls at Middlebury operate on the honor system. Students walk in at any time they’re open (typically 7AM-2PM and 4PM-8PM) without swiping a meal card or being asked to show a Middlebury ID. There is no limit to the number of meals that students are allowed to go to in a day or a week, and it’s not uncommon to head to Proctor for a snack after lab gets out at 4:15 before going to dinner at Ross at 6:30. A lot of students use dining halls as a spot to study with a little bit of a different feel from the library. Easy access to coffee and an endless stream of homemade cookies and locally produced Wilcox ice cream provide the perfect motivation for finishing a problem set or working through a long paper.

While students love the open nature of the dining halls at Midd, the food is the real star of the cafeteria scene. The food services office buys a lot of food locally; the farms that produce milk and eggs to feed hungry MiddKids are just a quick bike ride away, and some of the fruits and vegetables served are grown by students at the college’s Organic Farm. The chefs at Ross, Proctor and Atwater prepare fresh meals to suit all tastes, and gluten-free or vegetarian options are always available. Deciding where to eat dinner is as simple as checking the menus for each dining hall by searching go/menu from anywhere on campus.

ES Senior Seminar

Every fall I get more excited to come back to Middlebury. Walking across campus during the first week of the semester means running into old friends and never knowing when to expect the next bear hug, and the summer weather sticks around long enough that I can squeeze in a few bike rides with my teammates from Middlebury Cycling before the weather gets cold. While I love summer, I always look forward to getting back to school, and even though starting to think of what I’ll be doing next year is a little bit scary, being a senior means greater academic freedom.

I’m an environmental chemistry major, and the environmental studies program requires all seniors to participate in a project-based Senior Seminar that looks at an environmental problem in the local community from scientific, political and human interest angles. My seminar has sixteen students in it, and while each of us has completed the same general coursework to become an ES major, our focus areas range from geology, chemistry and biology to geography, human ecology and environmental nonfiction writing. Together we’re looking at the development of small hydroelectric projects in Vermont and exploring both the benefits of adding a new source to the state’s renewable energy portfolio as well as the potential costs to the local environment and economy. Although we’re guided by a Middlebury professor, most of our time is spent working with local environmental companies and doing our own research, so it feels like we’re working as consultants in a large firm.

Last week we took a field trip to an existing hydroelectric dam in Weybridge, Vermont to talk with some of the engineers who work on the project and to gain a better practical understanding of small hydroelectric projects. Watching the water from the tranquil reservoir above come crashing over the dam and into the creek below gave me a greater appreciation for just how much power even a small project involves. I’m looking forward to working more on my seminar’s project throughout the semester and presenting my group’s findings at the Environmental Studies Woodin Colloquium on December 8th.