Environmental studies class blends policy and learning

by Samantha Stern | 10/25/15 8:39pm

In recent years, the environmental studies program has made a push to encourage students to get their hands dirty — literally.

Last spring, students in an environmental studies course, “Environmental Problem Analysis and Policy Formation” with professor Nicholas Reo, worked with Thetford Academy — an independent secondary school in Vermont — to foster environmental conscientiousness both inside and outside the classroom, and the students collectively authored a report titled “Fostering Tomorrow’s Environmental Leaders.”

After its two-year partnership with the College ended, Thetford signed a new licensing agreement with the state of Vermont on Oct. 15 that will give the school access to the adjoining 177-acre Thetford Hill State Park.

Thetford Academy also received a $55,000 grant from the Woodbury Foundation following the conclusion of its partnership with Dartmouth. With full access to the state park and funding from the Woodbury grant, the school is implementing several projects proposed by the Dartmouth course’s report.

An outdoor club is meeting biweekly and learning outdoor skills — including fire building, navigational sports, knots, shelter building and first aid. Clubs dedicated to meditation and nature photography have also been active at Thetford this fall.

The recommendations came from the spring term course, when students were split into five groups to address central themes in sustainability and environmental leadership with the goal of fostering experiential, place-based learning on Thetford’s campus, according to the report. Among the topics evaluated and addressed were food sustainability, a curriculum based on the Ompompanoosuc River, outdoor education, solar power and trail development and maintenance.

The group of students in the course worked with Thetford faculty, staff and outside experts in order to present a range of recommendations to the school in their report.

The sustainability group recommended introducing aquaponics to help students learn about food systems and critical scientific concepts. They also recommended creating a “food day” to promote discussion of sustainable and organic farms, healthy eating, efforts to address hunger and fair working conditions for food and farm workers.

An aquaponics project is underway in the school’s greenhouse. Soil-free growing for plants in which they are fertilized by a connected tank of tilapia. In a symbiotic process, the nutrients from the plants feed the fish while the waste products of the fish nurture the plants.

The students focused on the Ompompanoosuc River built a detailed classroom curriculum with field labs based on the local river ecosystem. The outdoor education team generated a model for an extracurricular outdoor club, the solar power group examined the viability of solar power at Thetford and the trail design group was tasked with identifying potential sites for new trails that could increase student’s educational opportunities in the school’s backyard.

Several students who took the class said that they enjoyed the hands-on nature of the coursework.

“I try to take as many experiential learning classes as possible, so I was definitely attracted to the fact that we would be able to work with people outside of the classroom,” trail work group member Bean Crane ’16 said. “[Practice-based classes] seem more real-world and applicable.”

Annelise Sauter ’16 said she took the course because she wanted to improve at community-based participatory research — usually known as CBPR — the framework upon which the class was based. CBPR is the idea that one forms his or her research proposal with the community rather than coming into the community as an outsider and observing. CBPR works with community members to produce a result that is mutually beneficial to all parties, Sauter explained.

“I had already done a little bit of this [CBPR] in the [environmental studies] foreign study program, but only for a couple weeks in Namibia. I really liked it as a type of research and wanted to learn more about it,” she said.

The course has been taught since the 1970s and is designed for students to work collectively to formulate and justify policy measures appropriate for a specific local environmental problem, environmental studies program chair Richard Howarth said. The course is a culminating experience for the environmental studies major and acts as a bridge between the academic and professional spheres by encouraging students to synthesize and incorporate disciplinary knowledge in order to solve real-world problems.

Past iterations of the course have dealt with problems in the immediate Dartmouth and local community with varied degrees of success. In the 1990s, one class produced a report on the nature of Dartmouth’s recycling program, while the Dartmouth Organic Farm was the brainchild of another group of students. In another year, students established the outlines of a sustainable living center at Dartmouth, Howarth said.

Typically, the professor teaching the course chooses to delve into an environmental problem in the Upper Valley. Students take on that problem and generate an in-depth report throughout the course.

Reo, the professor who led the course, is interested in environmental education and himself lives in the town of Thetford, Howarth said. Through his personal relationships with Thetford Academy faculty, Reo developed the multi-year program linking Dartmouth and the academy, Howarth said.

“The teachers came up with a menu of different things that students could work on, and the students chose a set of those to work on in the first year and the project went so well in the first year that they decided to do a whole follow-up and second report covering some additional topics,” Howarth said. “The students were really able to grab on and do something that the school could implement.”

Howarth believes that the benefit of working with communities is multi-fold. Students’ recommendations can be a real resource for the general public while partners like Thetford profit from having a number of smart people immerse themselves in an issue and approach it from a fresh perspective. For students, engaging with external institutions can also be particularly stimulating, he said.

“A lot of [students] are restless to not just be working on tests and be focused on test scores. Surely, formal classroom experience provides a foundation, but students tend to be restless to get out and make a difference in the world, and the campus and the region here are a kind of laboratory for how that can be accomplished,” Howarth said.

Another advantage of the partnership was that students got to understand the mechanisms underlying group work. Sauter said that she visited Thetford Academy with her group weekly to meet with teacher Chris Schmidt. There, they surveyed Thetford’s land and plotted GPS points to inform Thetford where trails could be built or extended.

Environmental studies professors are particularly interested in what Howarth calls praxis — the bridge between understanding and action.

“Environmental studies is a field that is very interested in integrating biophysical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Problems need to be addressed using a whole variety of tools, perspectives and frameworks,” Howarth said.

Environmental studies professor Terry Osborne believes in making students aware of the “permeability of classroom walls.” He currently teaches two community-based courses, “COVER Stories: Community Building and the Environment” and “Ecopsychology,” two courses focused on non-profit action and the link between emotion and environmental studies.

The environmental studies program also hired Karen Bieluch last fall as a “practice-based learning specialist” dedicated to integrating the program’s faculty and staff with Upper Valley communities to bring experiential learning into the classroom.

Both community-based work and research programs are integral to experiential learning, Howarth said.

“There’s a pretty systematic commitment to bring students into [research]. That’s what keeps me going,” he said.

Partnerships and community engagement at the College are also strengthened through the Sustainability Office, which, although not formally connected to the environmental studies program, is also housed in Fairchild Hall and collaborates frequently with students in the department.

According to sustainability office project manager Jenna Musco ’11, many students in the major are inspired by courses to work at the office and use skills from class in a real-world context.

“Dartmouth is like a small town in itself, so there are a lot of world issues that students can tackle right here,” Musco said.