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Renewable Ed

At Vermont colleges, the climate is ripe for "green" degrees


Published February 28, 2007 at 12:43 p.m.

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If John Dewey, the famous philosopher and educator from Burlington, returned to Vermont, what would he say about the state of higher education? Bear in mind that Johnny D. is way old school: The guy graduated UVM in 1879 - the building on Colchester Avenue that now houses the university's psychology program is named after him. But Dewey's theories on interdisciplinary and experiential education still resonate in ivory towers across this pastoral landscape.

One thing looks different on Vermont campuses, though. In recent years, the state has witnessed an explosion of environmental-studies curricula. Of 11 Green Mountain undergrad and graduate schools surveyed for this article, every one offers some variant on an "environmental" concentration. Nowadays, Vermont is sending hundreds of young people into the real world with "green degrees."

The idea of integrating the natural world and intellectual life goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's babbling brook. But it wasn't until Middlebury College founded the nation's first "Environmental Studies" program in 1965 that American colleges and universities began to change course officially.

In 1970, the University of Vermont followed suit by creating an environmental study track of its own. Last May, 100 seniors graduated with degrees in either Environmental Studies or Environmental Science.

Ian Worley has been around since the first undergraduate harvest. As professor of Agricultural and Life Sciences and director of UVM's Environmental Studies program, he's witnessed academia's green renaissance. In the early '70s, Worley recalls, "The concept of the environment was very new." A decade later, the environmental major at UVM was still viewed as an "oddball thing." But between 1988 and 1989, enrollment skyrocketed by 400 percent. And with today's concern over issues such as global warming, it's no surprise that the environmental program has grown by 26 percent since 2000.

But at UVM, that's just one of many paths to eco-enlightenment. The College of Arts and Sciences, the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Education and Social Services each offers undergraduate and graduate variations on the theme. "The word 'environment' has proliferated," Worley understates.

But that doesn't imply uniformity across environmental curricula in Vermont. In 2007, the concept of a green degree is about as flexible as federal emissions standards. Examples: UVM offers a major in Environmental Engineering; at Middlebury, "E.S." majors elect their own focus, so conservation-biology buffs may find themselves in class with pseudo-transcendentalists; and at Johnson State College, 80 students are majoring in "Outdoor Education" - a program that trains students for careers in wilderness leadership.


In matters of environmental ed, application is key. Students who gravitate toward green degrees, Worley notes, tend to embody "a strong sense of advocacy or action." Accordingly, most programs in Vermont offer courses on topics such as environmental policy and organic agriculture.

Moreover, schools are making efforts to bridge the divide between the classroom and the outside world. UVM students can study the biology of Lake Champlain at the Rubenstein laboratory on Burlington's waterfront. Johnson State College maintains 1000 acres in the Babcock Nature Preserve. Sterling College in Craftsbury Common is one of only two 4-year colleges in the country to offer a program in draft-horse management. Most enviro-fied schools are also trying to source more food locally - in some cases, they've begun to till their own lands.

Middlebury is no exception to the trend. Though "the college doesn't want to be seen as an agricultural school," stresses Claire Polfus, a junior who worked as an intern at Midd's 5-year-old, three-quarter-acre veggie patch. Polfus, whose E.S. major focuses on literature, asserts, "It's a serious garden, but in a liberal-arts sense."

"Unfortunately, the notion of combining food and farm within the liberal arts is a bit distant for a lot of folks," says Philip Ackerman-Leist, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney. "We all have a duty to re-intellectulize farming," he suggests.

When he arrived at Green Mountain 11 years ago, there was no farm to speak of. "It was, 'Sow the seeds and they'll come,'" Ackerman-Leist reflects. His approach worked: Thanks to a student initiative in 2000, the college re-purchased a leased plot of adjacent turf. These days, students maintain 2 acres in vegetable production and another 10 in rotational grazing, with solar panels and a wind turbine to boot. Plus, every year, the college pays for one lucky green thumb to study agro-ecology on a rural estate in Italy.

Similarly, at Sterling, the connection between brain and soil is far from metaphorical. Students are required to do one week of farm chores each year - a policy grounded in the school's "Working hands, working minds" maxim. Senior Hannah Vollmer says this prompted her friends to adopt a term called "practivism."

A quirky twist on Dewey's "pragmatism," Vollmer's term seems to embody a core tenet of the contemporary green sensibility. By promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs and organizing rideshares, she insists, Sterling students do their part to keep it real.


How are Vermont's young "practivists," and the institutions that support them, adapting to environmental crises of the day?

For her senior applied research project, Vollmer has designed a study of alpine plant sensitivity to climate change. She conceived the project during a winter ecology course at Sterling's Center for Circumpolar Studies in nearby Wolcott. "I wouldn't have even been able to think of this project outside of Sterling," she claims.

Indeed, environmental departments around the state have begun to warm up to global warming. At Bennington and Marlboro colleges, students can sign up for "Global Change" and "Global Atmospheric Change," respectively. And thanks in large part to faculty enviro-star Bill McKibben, Middlebury is helping to set a national agenda in climate awareness. (Recent Midd graduates are spearheading the Burlington-based Step It Up campaign for meatier federal CO2 standards.)

In January, Polfus and a group of classmates presented a plan to Middlebury's board of trustees for making the college carbon-neutral by 2016. "The E.S. program does a good job of teaching students the basics of climate change," she notes, "which allows us to focus on being activists."

As green degrees proliferate, more and more graduates are considering which eco-career to follow. Polfus, still a junior, is undecided. Sterling's Vollmer says she's thinking graduate school, or a job in conservation.

Other crunchy brainiacs make their mark in the great outdoors. Before graduating as an Adventure and Environmental Education double major from Johnson State in 2002, Steve Charest spent a summer interning at Petra Cliffs, a Burlington-based climbing center and mountaineering school. He never left. Now, as program director, he leads trips to places such as Acadia National Park and Mount Katahdin, in Maine.

"It's very easy to tie experiential education to the wilderness," Charest says. "Learning in the actual environment is much more valuable to me - as a learner and a teacher - than textbooks and classrooms."

Lauren Whitley, a third-year student at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, found that her environmental activism led naturally into legal training. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2001, she worked as an organizer for groups such as Green Corps, the Sierra Club and Eco-Pledge. "I was ready to get my hands dirty - knock on doors and get people excited," Whitley says.

Now her "environmentalism has progressed," she continues. She serves as editor of The Vermont Journal of Environmental Law on campus, and hopes to work as a public defender after graduation. "This is the most important work I can be doing right now," Whitley says. To future green grads, she suggests, "The most important thing, whatever you do, is to be connected to your community."

UVM's Worley says that some of his program's alums have become "people in pinstripes," while others "log in the woods with horses."

Meanwhile, schools are blazing new trails toward institutional sustainability. UVM plans to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for its new Davis Center; Middlebury recently announced a $10,000 fellowship in environmental journalism; and Green Mountain College hopes to increase its regional food purchases to 30 percent within three years.

Green Mountain's Ackerman-Leist suggests that this innovative fervor occasionally translates into competition among colleges. But, he says, "The diversity of [all the schools'] approaches is really encouraging." Most importantly, he says, "environmental thinking needs to be mainstreamed" in American education as a whole.

The challenge facing green institutions in Vermont, according to this farmer-prof, is "how to be both thoughtful and strategic" without compromising environmental principles.

Dewey, after all, once said, "It is in virtue of thought . . . that nature speaks a language which may be understood." No surprise to find out that Steven Fesmire, chair of Green Mountain's Environmental Studies Department, is a Dewey scholar.

"I think [Dewey] would be proud of what we're doing," concludes Ackerman-Leist. "And he'd say that we can continue to go further."


Goddard College

Undergrad & grad degrees as part of Master's program in Individualized Study

Sample course: self-designed

VT Law School

Graduate degree in Environmental Law

Sample course: "Air Pollution Law & Policy"

Castleton state

Undergrad & grad degrees in Environmental Science

Sample course: "Sedimentology & Stratigraphy"

Middlebury College

Environmental Studies dept. since 1965; faculty from 26 depts.

Sample course: "Nature's Meanings"


Green undergrad degrees in Arts & Sciences and College of Ed; Undergrad & grad degrees in Ag & Life Sciences and Rubenstein School of Environmental & Natural Resources

Sample course: "Ecofeminism"

St. Michael's College

Undergrad & grad degrees in Environmental Science and Environmental Studies Sample course: "Geography of Water"

Johnson State

Undergrad & grad degrees in Environmental Science, Integrated Science, Natural Resources, Outdoor Ed, Adventure Ed & Wilderness Leadership, Environmental Ed.

Sample course: "Environmental Toxicology"

Sterling College

All students major in Conservation Ecology, Outdoor Ed & Leadership, Northern Studies, Sustainable Ag or Self-Designed Studies.

Sample Course: "Indigenous Cultures of the Circumpolar North"

Green Mountain College

Majors in Environmental Studies and Environmental Management.

Sample Course: "Corporate Social Responsibility"