Sustainability Practicum reflection #3

We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills — such as systems mapping, human-centered design, scenario planning, and team work — and from there to actually applying those skills to address a specific question: How should an entity like Middlebury College improve its sustainability by addressing its key vulnerabilities to climate change in the next 20 years.

Reflect briefly on your experiences and performance — both positive and negative — with the actual application of these skills to achieve your goal.  This reflection is not about reporting your results, since that will come in your final presentation and report.  Rather, it is a reflection on the quality of your work and engagement throughout this the process.

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.


  1. Finky says:

    Five weeks ago – when we were first tasked with proposing actions that Middlebury College might take to improve its sustainability by addressing key vulnerabilities to climate change – I was respectfully doubtful that such a feat could be accomplished. It seemed highly improbable that we would be able to provide any sort of meaningful insights into this major challenge after such a short period of time, when we were still struggling among ourselves to flesh out what exactly “sustainability” meant (a question we have, in fact, yet to fully answer). Yet here we are, just a few days away from our final presentations to a panel of professionals, and suddenly that initial task doesn’t seem so far-fetched. We are far from experts in the technical specifications of our proposal, but we have a deep foundational understanding of the system, and will be able to talk with confidence about where its vulnerabilities lie and how they might best be addressed.

    Earlier in the semester, we read about and discussed the merits of the human-centered design (HCD) approach for implementing systemic change. It seemed logical – improving a system based on the needs of those who directly interact with it – but, even with testimonials and case studies at our fingertips, it was difficult to truly imagine this process in action. In the past few weeks, as we have worked in teams to develop our proposals, we have had the opportunity to try out HCD for ourselves, and experience first-hand what it truly means to hear, create, and design.

    In the initial phases of our work as a team, the structure we followed seemed somewhat contrived and unnecessary; we found ourselves struggling to fill in Future Wheels and Scenario Quadrants that, at times, seemed extraneous. We filled the walls with brightly-colored Post-It notes and massive white sheets of paper; systems maps emerged, a messy web of lines that makes sense to us and probably no one else. By the end of Week 4, we had reached what we felt to be a solid decision about the College’s key vulnerabilities, and were well on our way to planning out proposed solutions to address them.

    It was then that we returned to the “hear” phase – which, we later realized, we had never formally gotten the opportunity to engage in. In order to more fully inform ourselves about the College’s energy system, we set up a meeting with a member of the Facilities staff. It quickly became clear to us that what we perceived to be one of our major vulnerability was not, in fact, considered to be an issue by an individual who worked directly in the system. And when we took the time to step back and ask him what he felt to be some of the College’s greatest weaknesses in the context of our assignment, we were suddenly met with a whole new host of insights, that led us down a different path towards what we feel to be a much stronger proposal. We realized that we had moved towards “creating” without having ever fully “heard”.

    This was perhaps the most informative moment of the entire HCD process: the recognition that encounters like these are precisely what human-centered design is all about. Despite all of the Post-Its, we were initially tackling the problem in a backwards way by considering only our own views of the system. We were engaging our own creativity, but failing to incorporate the reality that those who interact with the system know. Re-orienting ourselves, so that we could come to a creative solution that was still centered around the actual users of the system, has been one of the greatest challenges we have faced, but it has also, I believe, greatly strengthened our final proposal. Working through this process has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had, and I’m psyched to get to share what we’ve come up with!

  2. Kate Eiseman says:

    Culminating projects provide a unique opportunity to synthesize a new body of information and to test understanding through presentation – very exciting. I’ve always liked this characteristic of academia: energized by the chance to consider the big picture, make sense of a semester’s worth of learning, and, ultimately, arrive at a moment of clarity, surprised to realize just how much I have learned. This project was no exception. The learning, however, was not limited to the content of our presentation. Yes, I know more now about climate change, energy, and the College as a system. I’ve identified the importance of bridging the gap between the field of science and the culture surrounding the production of energy, particularly in the face of our changing climate. I’ve become more comfortable approaching individuals from all sides of the system and, with Human Centered Design tools, I’ve become more effective in those conversations. The Practicum, along with Cat’s International Environmental Negotiations class, proved that an understanding of a system is crucial to recognizing how to participate or intervene in that system. Six weeks ago, I could not have imagined myself working with the energy systems or climate change negotiations. Systems-based knowledge, and Bill McKibben’s position on the importance of system-based change given the immediacy of climate change, has shifted my thinking. What I’ve learned about teaming may be even more significant. In the first week of the program, one of our practitioners advised us to be aware of the objectives and the dynamic of a group: ‘You do not need to bring your full force to every context.’ I recognized mid-project (and hopefully not too late) that my contribution, though well intentioned, was silencing to other members of my group. So certain of the strength of my own ideas, I was blind to the strengths of my teammates’. I will continue to pay attention to the ways that I can foster collaboration and integration rather than control the project’s outcome

  3. Joseph Interligi says:

    I felt like through the system mapping I remained fully engaged from start to finish. When I need to input my opinion on certain aspects of the system I did so without hesitation but also without stepping on anyone’s toes. I also sat back and listened to others when they needed to correct at certain points when they were more familiar with the situation.

    During scenario planning I feel like I was also a fully engaged team member. Though at some points I would show frustration toward my teammates when things had to be explained several times I kept cool headed, took a breath and just explained it again.
    The attribute that I brought to the group that seemed most vital to my group was keeping the ball rolling. I tried to make sure that every day we accomplished something. Though I am sure my team would of done this even without me present I feel as if I remained a constant push to do this. I feel as if overall I was a fully participating member of my group that not only worked hard to help myself but also to help my friend also known as my teammates.

  4. Dana Kluchinski says:

    The beginning of this process was very difficult for my group. All of our initial brainstorming and scenario planning felt very abstract and we had trouble being engaged. I felt at a disadvantage at the start as well, not being a full time Middlebury student. I tried my best to listen to my teammates and to encourage their creative thinking. The scenario planning was difficult, but helped us to pick uncertainties. When mapping the college, it was hard to stay examined in the problem of uncertainties without jumping to a solution oriented approach. We were all involved in identifying vulnerabilities, but I think as a group we did not spend enough time in brainstorming solutions. I put additional effort into looking at the vulnerabilities in a problem oriented way, and our solutions ended up working out, but I think it took us additional time due to the lack of attention to the brainstorming stage. We put significantly the most work into our recommendations. I think my weakest point was that I had a hard time understanding all of the complicated processes of our recommendations, but I think my greatest contribution to the group was research and fostering a light hearted environment. I had no problem reminding the group to whistle while we worked. Overall I had a very positive experience and will use what I learned in the future when I work with other groups. I want to always make sure that I’m pulling the full weight I can, and that I make sure there aren’t group members doing more than others.

  5. Finky says:

    In my earlier post – written before I knew what Steve and Cat were exactly looking for in this final reflection – I focused more on my group’s experience throughout the second half of this semester. I want to re-focus a little here, and share more of my personal experience with the process we have just completed.

    There are very few instances I can remember in which I have had a positive experience with group work. I tend to find myself taking on the vast majority of the work, and being constantly left with the feeling that the entire project could be done far more efficiently and effectively if I could just work on my own. For this reason, I tend to dread any sort of group projects, and avoid them at all costs. Coming from this mindset, I was absolutely blown away by the Dream Team. Never before have I gotten the chance to work with such dedicated, focused, insightful, creative, fun people – and never before have I been surrounded by a group who is as committed to the team and the final outcome of the project as I am. I found myself putting in a great deal of work to this project, but found that my efforts were being matched by all three other members, which led to an environment of respect and trust and enabled us to form a cohesive team unit. Being free to be a team member, instead of feeling responsible for holding the team together, was a new experience for me. Surrounded by an incredibly supportive group of teammates, I was much more willing to risk putting my own thoughts and ideas forward, and was much more receptive to their critique. I found myself still taking on more of the work in areas where I am more comfortable – such as writing out pitch and composing our final report – but I also took the chance to step outside of my comfort zone, engaging in the “human” side of the work by sending emails and making phone calls. I know that, without the confidence that I was able to have in my group, I wouldn’t have been able to have the self-confidence to take on these new challenges.

    It’s pretty incredible to walk out of this process with such a positive group experience behind me; each time I talk about this project, I say how incredibly lucky I am to have gotten the chance to work with this group of people. The Dream Team couldn’t have been more aptly named. It’s been real, guys; you’re actually the best.

    1. Eliot Neal says:

      I never thought I would agree to go to summer school. All I can say is that I am so glad that I did. I have never been in an intensive school experience like this, and I learned so much about the way that I interact with team members and things that I can do to improve the way I work with people. I was so surprised with how much I engaged with the project – the deeper we got into the project, the more interested I got. I loved doing the research and making sure our bases were covered to provide the best presentation we could.
      As a team member, there are so many things I realized I could work on. The biggest of these is simply listening. I sometimes caught myself so wrapped up in my own ideas that I would write off other ideas. Many of these other ideas we ended up eventually turning to, so we could have saved a lot of time if I had just listened in the first place.
      The most positive aspect of the entire project was being able to fully trust my teammates and know that we were presenting a well thought out, and feasible proposal. As a team, we were able to accomplish so much more than we could have individually, and I will keep this in mind in my future endeavors. My teammates inspired me to try my hardest and contribute the most I could, and I think I achieved this. But it was only possible with the support of the other 11 students and the faculty every day!

  6. Dylan McGarthwaite says:

    And just like that, the presentations are over and we have completed the inaugural Middlebury School of the Environment! What an absolutely incredible opportunity to be a part of something that has become so great in the last 6 weeks. I am thrilled that we closed it out by presenting and pitching the ideas we had been working on for weeks. With every group project there are challenges and successes. With the teamwork and persistence, among many other things, my team was able to present something that we were truly proud of. To me this presentation was more than just explaining some of the ideas that we had come up with, but instead we able to showcase the things that we were passionate about. From its start and through its conclusion, this momentous endeavor was made possible by the work of many people including my teammates and professors. They created an environment in which I was able to thrive. I was really able to enjoy the process and attack it from all angles. As I have learned, in working in groups, you are not only responsible for getting your work done because you depend on it, but the whole team depends on it. I really worked hard convey my thoughts while also hearing the thoughts of my team. I think our biggest strength was the ability to constructively build on each other’s concepts. I am sufficiently proud of the effort that I put into this project. The thing that I struggled with was being overwhelmed in a few situations surrounding the amount of work we had to get done. My team really provided great support and we were able to stick it out through the end. I am so honored to have worked with not only my final group but also all of the students as a whole to present these ideas. It was an unbelievable experience that I will remember for a long time.

  7. Eleanor Bennett says:

    During my past four years at Middlebury College I have worked on a handful of group projects and presentations. While each one had its own set of challenges to overcome and learn from, our final Practicum project for the School of the Environment has been by far the most influential to my life. Not only was I tested in ways that I never expected, I also experienced a great deal of personal growth. One of the most important parts of the process was coming to realize my strengths and weaknesses, especially in relation to my group. Over the course of our project, I was able to witness firsthand the DISC index that we did with Marie Hurlie in the first week of the program. I remember feeling that the test was exceptionally accurate (my highest score was an “I” for “Influencer”), but because I had never been aware of this set of traits before, I could not comprehend exactly how this would play out in a real group project. In retrospect, my influencer style definitely shaped my experiences and performance (both positive and negative) with the actual application of the many planning skills—including systems mapping, HCD, scenario planning, and team work—that we had been honing throughout the summer.

    In the case of all four of the above planning skills, I think my strengths lay in my ability to build off of the thoughts and ideas of my teammates as well as my optimism and ability to galvanize our team to action. In terms of team work, I think my ability to generate enthusiasm and maintain group stability helped to keep the group energized and cohesive. Likewise, during the HCD process, I think my constant encouragement of group creativity, innovation and seeking out of community members and outside experts helped to ensure that whatever recommendations we generated would be meaningful and inspiring. In terms of my weaknesses, there were many times—especially during our use of the systems map and scenario planning tools—when I felt fresh-out of original ideas and often I felt like I had little knowledge to contribute. In the beginning, I think I let my confusion and often slow-processing time get in the way of my ability to listen to and build-off of my teammates ideas. Once I realized how supportive and non-judgmental our group was, however, I was able to overcome this obstacle and become more confident in what I had to contribute. While I often felt like I had the least expertise in terms of pure knowledge-base, I soon came to view this as an opportunity to learn and grow from my teammates instead of as a weakness. Furthermore, I came to the realization that I could contribute in other invaluable ways, especially within the HCD and team work aspects.

  8. Isaac Baker says:

    On a personal level, and as a group, I think our group was slow on the uptake in applying scenario planning. It was difficult to stay motivated when the task at hand was so abstract, reflecting on potential uncertainties and all things plausible 20 years in the future. In reflecting on how I work in groups, I am often inclined to be a supporter and to feed off of the energy of others; at least at the start of our project, our group lacked initiative and leadership.

    Once we established our uncertainties and got our futures and vulnerabilities squared away, I was much more able to offer direction. This platform made it much easier to practice creative ideation and the HCD process because I felt like we had something to work off of. After that I put in a lot of work with my team to follow our ideas through and focus on implementation and viability as much as possible. Something I was proud of was the amount of interviewing I was able to facilitate, particularly in contacting Alan Rubacha from Wesleyan about microgrids. Our conversation with him did more to help focus our thinking on microgrids than all of our other research outside of it.

    The presentation was a big opportunity for us to put all of our advice from Mike Kiernan into action, and I felt like I was able to start developing better habits and intentionality. While there was still room for improvement (and there will always be), I finally managed to plant my feet, look around the room, and talk mostly without cards or paper, which was a big step in the right direction.

    When it came to writing and putting together our final report, I was at home and in my element as an English major. Though I found the process of group writing challenging in terms of establishing some semblance of a common voice to run through all of our sections, I stuck with it and we put together a document that I am proud to have my name on.

  9. Charlotte Ahern says:

    At Villanova, this past semester particularly, I have led groups in the wrong way. I was too blinded by the severity of the issues and achieving goals that I did not truly see the people around me.

    I learned a lot about myself this summer, but mostly I learned the importance of working with a team. I am so grateful for Team North Star. There were plenty of tense moments— times when I got carried away with my own ambitions, times when I wanted to leave the room and give up, times when I lost my temper when I shouldn’t have.

    I learned the importance of taking a deep breath, and moving forward—together. I learned how to look around the room and utilize the strengths of each person, and the infinite wonderful capabilities they can bring. Marjeela, Kate, Eliot: I am so thankful for each one of you. You are all very special to me, not only as friends, but as teammates. For the rest of my life, I will remember the lessons that each one of you has taught me. While a major component of this project was the final product, it’s the journey that we took together that I will carry with me.

  10. Alex Cort says:

    I could have never have predicted what I would learn coming out of this program. Today, I can say that after almost four years at Middlebury College, I feel like this is one of the rare opportunities where I have gained skills. From system mapping to scenario planning, it had been an intense six weeks of learning. Besides the academic learning, I have undergone immense interpersonal growth.
    First and foremost, I have learned to listen. Wait for punctuation. This has given me the opportunity to think more and talk less. At times, I find myself quickly passing judgment, but I have been able to move past that and let ideas flow. This I can accredit to Human Centered Design. I still need to work on this. Continuing along this same line, I find myself losing motivation when I became apathetic. The past six weeks have pushed me beyond this.
    Post School of the Environment, I need to continue to work of waiting for punctuation and remove myself from apathy. Rock on.

  11. Marjeela Basij-Rasikh says:

    Throughout the program, I was part of various small teams as we were working on different projects such as systems mapping, scenario planning, and creatively thinking of solutions through applying the Human Center Design procedure. All of which helped us to get prepared for our final group challenge. When working with my team, the North Star, I realized that one of the strength that I had was being able to flex in my leadership personality, it is important for me that all the voices are heard in my team, and to help my teammates to keep in mind the bigger picture of our project and to link the interconnection of the details together that we were finding in our research as a group. I am a good listener, though I discovered that it takes me longer to respond to when I hear a new idea and to share my reaction with the team members about that new idea. Perhaps it might be that due the fact that English is my fifth language so I need some more time to process the new information in my head; besides, I usually like to share only a solution that I think would be most appropriate and effective in solving the problem. Something that I need to work on is paying attention more closely to the details. Also, to share my ideas as it comes without picking and choosing of the ideas that I may think would be best.

    Working with my team, the North Star was definitely one of the many highlights of the SoE. I learned from each one of my teammates. I was inspired by my teammate’s determination and desire for coming up with an excellent outcome. The combination of our passions and strengths facilitated to a great outcome at the end of our project. We all learned a great deal throughout the process of working as a team. I was very proud of us that through actively listening (and implementing all the “feed-forward”) we worked out very well through the few times when we found ourselves frustrated.

    Charlotte, Eliot, and Kate: this was just the beginning. I know it, and I am very hopeful, that we will be working together on a similar projects in the near future.

    Thank you all very much (respective faculties and my fellow classmates) for all your passion and determination to make our world a better place. I am leaving this program more hopeful and optimistic. Keep in touch. #YouAllRock!

  12. Jess Parker says:

    Reflecting back on this group project, I felt that Team Bobcat worked well together when it mattered most. We were able to play up each other’s strengths during each step of the process. Although we had a tough time beginning the process of scenario planning, we eventually worked through the difficulties and were able to develop two solid recommendations for the College. On a personal note, I found it difficult to think of Middlebury’s future in terms of our two selected uncertainties and I would have appreciated spending more time thinking critically about our possible scenarios. I think that I contributed to the group in a positive way through research and writing, but I could have done more in the initial stages of the project to flesh out the uncertainty related to forest cover. As a group, we did not spend enough time brainstorming possible solutions to our vulnerability of the College’s ability to source biomass, and thus our recommendation went through many iterations and did not reach a level of depth or thoroughness that we achieved for our primary recommendation of a microgrid. However, we all came together around the exciting possibility of a microgrid, and we were able to divide the work in a way that profited from our individual strengths. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with three amazing individuals who brought their creativity, positive attitude, and supportive ethos to every group session and challenged me to address my weaknesses and learn from them moving forward.

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