Category Archives: Academics

Not Your Average Saturday

Last Saturday, instead of digging into my homework in the library or (as is more likely) avoiding the day’s chill in my sweatpants and LL Bean moccasins (guilty as charged, Nathan LaBarba), I was lucky enough to attend a lecture series here on campus called TEDx. An offshoot of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) organization, TEDx events are individually, locally organized events in the TED tradition of promoting ‘ideas worth spreading’. The event combined a sprinkling of TED videos with live speakers discussing their experience in a wide range of fascinating topics, from the revitalization of Central Park to the study of empathy and doctors’ bedside manners. There was even a student speaker, a current senior chosen by the TEDx committee to reflect on the college experience from the perspective of both an introvert and an extrovert.

Needless to say, it was a fascinating day. When the session broke for lunch, my friends and I crowded around a table with our Noonies sandwiches and soups, discussing the overlaps between each talk. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite parts about academics here at Middlebury, too. If you take the time to reflect on each of your courses year after year, it is incredible to see the overlaps, the continuities, the meaningful discrepancies.

The best part of the day, though, was not the insightful speakers or even the food (though the apple cider doughnuts were pretty hard to beat), but it was the vast swath of the Middlebury student body present at the talks. There are a million different ways to spend a Saturday at Middlebury, most of them much less intellectually overwhelming than TEDx. But on Saturday I ran into  friends from all walks of Middlebury life (and several Senior Fellows!), each as excited as the next as they alluded to the forum’s themes, “Research, Rethink, Rebuild”.

Middlebury is many things, and if you’ve ever attended one of our information sessions on campus I’m sure we’ve made that evident. Focused as my sessions are on the internal growth that comes with the Middlebury experience, I often forget to state that ultimately, Middlebury is a great big incubator for new ideas worth spreading. Sitting in the CFA concert hall, full to bursting with locally-sourced cider doughnuts, I was reminded of the diversity of new ideas being developed, spread, and implemented here on campus. And as I chatted with my friends at the forum, many of us seniors attending TEDxMiddlebury while we still can, I couldn’t help but wonder what bright ideas students like us will spread when we leave for the wider world.

The Solar Lifestyle

While the fall leaves are changing and there’s a smell of apple cider and pumpkin in the Vermont air, a few Middlebury students are braving the warm, sprawling desert of Southern California, celebrating the end of the Solar Decathlon Competition.

For those of you who don’t know, the Solar Decathlon is a biannual competition put on by the Department of Energy where 20 schools from around the world are chosen to build a 1,000 square foot house entirely powered by solar panels. The competition is a ‘decathlon’ because each house is judged in 10 different categories, ranging from Market Appeal and Home Entertainment (where each house throws a series of dinner parties), to Engineering and Energy Balance.

Middlebury College is a spunky David in a field of Goliaths. As an unpartnered liberal arts school, we were up against engineering powerhouses like Stevens and Stanford, conglomerates of larger schools like Team Capitol DC (American University, GW, and Catholic University), and schools that represented entire countries like Austria and the Czech Republic. For many Southern Californians, it was difficult to grasp the idea of a liberal arts school pulling off such a feat on its own.

I had the opportunity to travel out to Irvine a few weeks ago to finish construction and lead public tours through the house. While I was sorry to miss a week of the Middlebury fall, I could not give up the opportunity to see the latest and greatest in solar energy building. There was a palpable energy on the competition site as competitors eagerly toured all 19 houses and made new friends from across the globe. Our neighbors and new best friends Team Austria instantly nicknamed us ‘Team Smiley’, probably because of our upbeat demeanor  afinity for early morning yoga, soccer during lunch breaks, and spontaneous mid-construction dance parties.

While it was great touring the other houses and getting to know the competitors, the best part of the week were the public tours through our house, InSite, showing off 2 years of hard work and planning. For those of you that couldn’t make it out, here’s the tour highlight reel from our Five Points of Insiteful Design:

1. Live in a Walkable Community: InSite was designed for a specific lot on Shannon Street. When it comes back to campus as student housing, the house will form a nice bridge between the college and town communities, with the solar panels providing shade over a well worn sidewalk between the two.

2. Prioritize Social Space: Over 2/3rds of the 956 square foot floor plan is dedicated to the open space of kitchen, dining room, and living room. The high cielings and continuous feel of these spaces makes the home feel much larger than its blueprint suggests, encouraging the home’s residents to spend the majority of their time together or with other community members in the social areas rather than cloistered away in the private spaces.

3. Centralize Energy Systems: All of the appliances heavy in electricity and water usage are centralized along our mechanical module to make awareness of these features a cornerstone of the house. Our solar panels are also featured prominantely, with the panels removed from the roof in a pathway that acted as a nice patio shade in SoCal. The Lumos brand panels we used are also distinct from typical panels, with spacing between the silicon cells that allows you to see through them to the sun and sky beyond.

4. Engage the Street: Our house is designed to fit into the local Vermont community. To do so from the outside, the house is clad in reclaimed barnwood over 150 years old. Many key components of the house, like the windows and roof orientation, are designed to engage shannon street specifically.

5. Use Local Materials: The floors are sugar maple woods harvested from Middlebury College forests, less than 10 miles from campus. Look closely and you can see tap holes where these trees were tapped for maple syrup! Much of the furniture was also made by Midd students. The coffee table, the benches, the punch out window seat, the bowl for the bathroom sink, and all of the dishware were made by students this summer.

The competition is now over and the judging complete. Middlebury came in 8th overall and 4th in the People’s Choice Award! An amazing victory for our small school. Many congratulations to our friends, Team Austria, for winning 1st place! The house is being deconstructed as we speak so it can be shipped back to campus. It will be student housing in the spring – so be sure to ask for a tour if you’re visiting us next semester.

Congrats to all of the Solar Decathlon teams for their hard work and contribution to the future of architecture and energy. A special shoutout to the Middlebury team, for proving the mettle of liberal arts students and our contribution to the future.

Go Team Smiley!

Finding home

One of my first weekends at Middlebury, a friend and I ran up Chipman Hill. As we reached the top, both of us grew quiet. Taking in the vast expanses of the patchwork landscape – the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west – I stood in awe of the place I would grow to call home for the next four years.

From my freshman year, the combination of the natural beauty of Addison County and a curiosity to understand it led me to the study of Conservation Biology. Throughout the campus, and especially as an Environmental Studies major, we often engage in conversations around sustainability. As a budding ecologist, climate activist, and a steward of our natural world at Middlebury, sustainability is more than an oft-repeated buzzword across Admissions brochures. It’s a guiding principle we live every day.

Derived from the Latin word sustinere – to hold up, support, and endure – sustainability at Middlebury is a forward thinking principle that acknowledges the future consequences of today’s human impacts, the interconnectedness of natural and human communities, and the moral obligation to support future generations.

Take my BIOL 0302 class, Vertebrate Natural History with Steve Trombulak. You wake up at 5 in the morning. It’s pitch black. You slowly crawl out of bed, throw on as much wool as you can find, and walk into the biting cold to set out mist-nets. Minutes later you’ll walk the lanes of nets, hold in your hand a Black-capped chickadee, a White-throated sparrow, or maybe a bright red male Northern cardinal. That same afternoon you might go out to Lewis Creek to electrofish or set up Sherman traps to collect a flying squirrel in Cornwall. Or take BIOL 323, Plant Community Ecology, when we hiked through the old-growth hemlock-pine forest of the Battell Research Forest, measured the invasion of European buckthorn and Eurasian bush honeysuckle, and traced the changes in forest composition along an altitudinal gradient.

At Middlebury, our professors do not treat us as students in the traditional sense, but as apprentices in the craft of each field of study. Middlebury students are budding mathematicians and economists, future surgeons and psychologists, or emerging marine biologists. When we learn about how to protect species diversity, conserve natural habitat, and protect wildlife corridors, or the importance of breeding grounds, pollinators, and seed dispersal pathways, this knowledge is not theoretical. It is the work of the future.

All Environmental Studies majors participate in a capstone seminar course which is both project based and in conjunction with a community partner. The theme of this spring’s senior seminar is “issues in transboundary sustainability.” I’m working with a team of five other ES majors each with a unique focus. We are students of political science, economics, biologists, and geographers looking to understand the cross-jurisdictional regional prevention of aquatic invasive species in Lake Champlain. While our professors and community partners are here to guide us with academic support, resources, and expertise, the whole project is ours. Inspired and enriched by this project-based philosophy, we are able to pursue solutions with curiosity, self-discovery, and collaboration.

Four years after beginning my study of conservation biology, the top of Chipman Hill is more familiar. What was once a vast expanse of space has been transformed into place, both personal and specific.

When I arrived at Middlebury, I fell in love with the forested landscape of Vermont with no real regard for its natural history, inhabitants, or processes. Four years later, Addison County is no longer a “landscape” but a place, endowed with value and meaning as I have experienced more attachment to this community. Walking around campus bird songs are no longer undifferentiated calls as I have learned the tones and rhythms of their chirpings. The forest is no longer filled with “trees” but individual species, each with taxonomic nomenclature and natural history. At the top of Chipman Hill, I no longer only see a view, but become a part of what Aldo Leopold pens as the sensory experience of the “theatre of evolution.”

I never thought I’d ever call going back to Middlebury “coming home.”

Spring Student Symposium

As I am always telling my information sessions, I have two favorite days every year at Middlebury: Chili Festival and Spring Student Symposium. The reason I love Chili Fest is obvious, I think, because I get to sample dozens of kinds of chili while casually strolling along Middlebury’s Main Street on a balmy day in March. But the reasons I love Spring Student Symposium are a little more complicated.

Spring Student Symposium takes place on a Friday in late April, and classes are cancelled for the day. McCardell Bicentennial Hall (“Bihall”) transforms itself into the college-level equivalent of an elementary school science fair, and hundreds of students put up posters, make presentations, and give all sorts of demonstrations. The topics? Anything they want—papers they’ve worked on, research they have undertaken, senior theses, work done while studying abroad. The Symposium is a celebration of the huge amount of undergraduate research that takes place at Middlebury.

The presentations really range the academic spectrum. I’ll give an example, using two roommates I know. One is a physics major, and was part of a team that converted a tractor to run on hydrogen. (I went for a ride.) The other roommate is a classics major with an interest in the civil rights movement—so, naturally, he translated the works of Malcomb X into Latin. So Spring Symposium presentation topics truly range the gamut.

The reason I love Symposium is because it is an opportunity to see what friends and peers are up to and to marvel at the amount of research that goes on here, in some really fascinating different fields. We all know that our friends are smart and that our friends work hard, but to see them presenting the results of their hard work in a group setting can be inspiring. In my mind, Middlebury’s emphasis on undergraduate research—across the curriculum and at all levels—is a unique trait and one that cannot be understated.

This year, I will be presenting at Symposium for the first time. I’ll be discussing my senior thesis, which is about Internet censorship in China. I’m excited for my friends, peers, and professors to see what I’ve been up to all year, and I know that it’ll be a proud capstone for my Middlebury experience. But I’m more excited to see what my friends and peers have been up to this year—I know I’ll be astonished and inspired by their work.

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.


Boom goes the dynamite

Intellectual fireworks often go off at Middlebury. Generally, they are of the metaphorical variety: Two students are finishing off a marathon dinner and the conversation turns to the seminar they just attended. There, one student, for perhaps the third time that week, thought about an issue in a way he or she had never considered before. The dining mate commiserates, and then they argue, and things go from there—personal growth ensues.
Last Thursday night, I experienced fireworks of a different variety. I had curled up with Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic for the evening (a surly bed partner if there ever was one), gradually becoming enmeshed in the work. Suddenly, Weber’s points were hitting me with palpable strength. The walls shook with every “however,” each “therefore” boomed across the room. Indeed, there was a hue to the words, now red, now blue, now glittering silver. I looked up from the book toward my window to find the Winter Carnival fireworks in full force. Take away point? Weber’s pretty good. Relationship to this blog? Middlebury makes him better.

Final Registration!

I am still grappling with the fact that I just registered for my last semester of classes at Middlebury College. It is quite surreal as I vividly remember the first session of registration and the first weeks of school that followed and know that I will soon have an even stronger memory of receiving a diploma, donning a cap and gown. I don’t want to accept my nearing departure or come to terms with the idea of leaving this utopia and entering the harsh confines of the big old world. While I am distressed at the simple thought of leaving, I have an equally calm sensation knowing that Middlebury has aptly prepared me to go. I am at ease knowing that I have experienced Middlebury in a true liberal arts fashion and can leave feeling fulfilled.  This satisfied sensation stems from experimenting in arguably too many activities, exploring Middlebury’s extensive programs and saying yes more often than saying no.  My best 10 tips for current students who have an expiration date that is not as pressing as 2012 are to

10  Explore Vermont in every season

9      Eat at restaurants in town or cook meals with close friends at least once a week

8      Go to lectures, especially outside of your major

7      Pick classes that truly excite you (makes reading much more enjoyable)

6      Get a good coat

5      Meet as many people as you can, low acceptance rates make for pretty outstanding individuals

4      Take advantage of all the great social options but don’t forget to have some alone time

3      Go abroad

2      Live in large, communal housing for at least a semester

1      Call mom and dad more than you want to



Thanks, Middlebury!

By committing to Middlebury College, we, the students, have decided that this institution was the place where we’d trade in $200k+ and 4 years of our lives in exchange of its stellar undergrad experience. Sure, we all expected to take ECON105 and maybe discover a new passion for History of Africa, or even take part in a theater production but personally speaking, I think I have grown exponentially during my time at Middlebury far beyond the academic setting.

People have referred to our campus as a ‘country club’ in its remarkable facilities and general easygoing atmosphere. I won’t deny that we attend an institution that runs like butter but I think sometimes the  tangible aspects get in the way of realizing the little things. So I will take a stroll down memory lane of all the things I am thankful for as an attribute to my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.

1. Perks of traveling abroad as a Midd student. 
a)I was never afraid to travel alone because I knew that if I ever got lost, I would have contact information of someone who can help me. I cried tears of joy when my friends came to my rescue when I was lost in Gare du Nord with severely limited French comprehension skills.
b) I literally ran into a Midd student when I went to visit Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Talk about a total coincidence!
c) I was able to receive personal recommendations from students studying in various parts of the world while planning out trips.

2.  Meaningful internships
I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Costa Rica by partaking in an arts/literacy program in San Jose, Costa Rica during my sophomore year J-Term. Funding to participate in this program was available by the Middlebury Arts Council, who provided a generous stipend to help cover traveling and living costs.

This past summer, I secured an internship through the Career Services Office and I spent time in Louisville, Kentucky as a summer school teacher for at-risk youth. It was probably the hardest I’ve worked and boy, did it make me appreciate my teachers a whole lot more, but the outcome was well worth my efforts.

3. Good school-sponsored activities
Middlebury is the farthest thing from identifying as a metropolitan city. The school realizes this and makes a strenuous effort to ensure that students are entertained. There are numerous guest lecturers, LNDPs (late night dance parties, duh), small and large venue concerts (can we bring Kid Cudi back please?), comedians (Judah Friedlander, you are the MAN)—-and these are only activities that are sponsored by MCAB! Each campus organization is given a budget to have fun and events are open to the entire Middlebury campus. I love that I don’t have to make a huge effort to figure out what I’m doing this weekend; I can just open up my email and see what all is happening.

4. (lack of) meal plan
I am extremely thankful that this institution does not make me pay for every food item that I consume on a daily basis. We also do not have a swiping system and it makes this place feel more like home, as I can walk into all three dining halls and eat as much as I want. Already looking forward to the next Breakfast for Dinner!

5. School spirit
I love walking around campus and seeing everyone displaying their Midd apparel. Even more so, I enjoy seeing them off campus.
Midd hockey opened up its season last night against Colby and I must say, I have never been prouder to be sitting in the Student Section with my best friends cheering for our boys. (special shout out to PRESCOTT HOUSE)

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.



                As J-term registration faces me tomorrow morning at 6:59am, I cannot help but think back to my experience in taking MiddCORE last January. While I was not certain of what the course would entail, I had heard too many people tell me that, “It was the greatest course I have taken at Middlebury” or “You would really be perfect for this course” or “I worked all day every day but it was the most rewarding experience” to not buck up and take it.  So, knowing nothing more than people’s strangely passionate reactions to the course, I fell asleep at 7:03am on the day of registration, warily signed up for MiddCORE. A mere two weeks later, we began receiving e-mails from the coordinator with our first week challenges, our mentor sheets, our daily schedule and a mission statement. Included in the first e-mail was a friendly welcome note followed abruptly by a subtle warning that in the four weeks of January, we should be prepared to relinquish our beings to the greater entity of MiddCORE and be prepared to have a life-changing experience. This was where I began to question my rash decision of enrolling in a mysterious beast of a course that was subsequently leading me into surrendering my soul and transforming my already satisfying life. I was in too deep as any other possibly appealing class was filled to the brim with eager students and followed by extensive waiting lists. I had committed and albeit skeptically, I would head to the Atwater seminar room on January 3rd at 8am to prove all of those previous students correct.

            I can’t describe accurately what happened in the four weeks that followed but I can vouch that every previous comment was verified and that while I was happy to retrieve my soul at the end of January, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my winter term experience. The course was a dynamic collaboration of every possible skill necessary in the work world. The topics covered ranged from sales to marketing to networking to public speaking to negotiating to consulting to art projects to movie making. Every day, topics changed and we were constantly shifting from one theme to the next. There was no single professor but rather a host of mentors that came daily to lead the class and facilitate challenges. Each week, we were split into groups of 4 and given distinct challenges that culminated in a presentation and judging session on Friday. Aside from the prize of finally sleeping on Friday night, the winning team also was given a gift certificate to a restaurant in town. Being an ultra competitive individual, I dove head first into the challenges and felt as if the coordinator was Donald Trump and I the eager Apprentice. The four weeks are quite a blur as days melted into nights and core themes multiplied. I worked extremely hard each day but never felt distressed as I was doing so on my own accord. At the end of the course, I primarily felt a bizarre sense of power stemming from the confidence gained throughout the four weeks but mostly, a sense of satisfaction with my Middlebury education. Before entering the course, I was skeptical of my future plans and feeling as though the lack of focus in the liberal arts education would hinder me in the application and interview process the following fall. Contrastingly, upon completion of MiddCORE, I discovered that a liberal arts education would in fact prove to be quite practical as it prepares you not only for one distinct track but truly, for any.  The course continues to follow me and its benefits are notable in my daily happenings. I couldn’t be more pleased with my decision to enroll and have brashly become a proud MiddCORE alumna spouting similar ambiguous praises around registration time in efforts to convert new wary, but brave, undergrads.