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Middlebury College: Environmental Studies Major

Nadine Barnicle
Adjunct Faculty & Coordinator for Community Based Environmental Studies

Description
Founded in 1800, Middlebury College is a top-tier private liberal arts college serving more than 2,500 students and located in Middlebury, Vermont. The institution also offers graduate and specialized programs around the world that lend a global orientation to the college. “Through a commitment to immersive learning, Middlebury prepares students to lead engaged, consequential and creative lives, contribute to their communities, and address the world’s most challenging problems” (see Envisioning Middlebury). In 1965, Middlebury College was one of the first institutions of higher education in the United States to establish an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies program. Environmental Studies is routinely the second or third largest major at the institution, graduating ~50 majors annually in each of the last five years. 

The mission of the Environmental Studies Program is to foster deep learning of and critical engagement with diverse human-environment relationships within the complex dynamics of the natural world. Students explore these relationships within a broad range of cultural, historical, social, and scientific contexts: urban and rural, global and local, past and present. Our students engage critically with questions of justice and inequity that arise in myriad settings from wild lands to cities. Students develop scientific and cultural knowledge of diverse narratives about what "nature" means, how nature works, and why it matters. Thus, the program’s overall mission inherently reflects civic learning tactics, which are in place informally throughout the curricula.

Within the Environmental Studies major, students develop a strong foundation of skills, theory, and perspectives within an area of focus (selected from among >10 established curricula) and broad knowledge across the liberal arts (through core courses required of all majors). ES majors integrate ideas and approaches that span disciplinary lines and pursue open-ended, collaborative, and place-based learning that is simultaneously scholarly, pragmatic, and community-oriented. Through interdisciplinary learning, Environmental Studies majors develop the practice of engaging, communicating, and collaborating to enrich our understanding of complex environmental and ecological systems and to advance solutions to the world’s most challenging environmental problems. A purposeful civic learning methodology is utilized in the required capstone: Environmental Studies Community-Engaged Practicum. Since its inception in 1988, students in this course have collaborated on projects with individuals and partner organizations in the private and public sectors including community organizations, local and state governments, the College, and others.

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
The primary location within the ES curriculum where all majors encounter community-engaged project work is within the Community-Engaged Environmental Studies Practicum (the Practicum). As of 2018 this course is open to juniors and seniors who have completed the four core environmental studies courses required of all majors (Natural Science & the Environment; Conservation & Environmental Policy; Contested Grounds: U.S. Cultures & Environments; and Spatial Thinking with Geographic Information Systems); historically it has only been available to seniors. In the Practicum, students work in small groups with one of a variety of partners to complete a semester-long, community-engaged project. Project themes vary by term and typically focus on local, regional, or state-wide environmental issues that have broader application. The project culminates in a public presentation of students’ final products, which take various forms, including written reports, policy white papers, or media and marketing outreach products (e.g., podcasts and websites). The Practicum provides learning opportunities that ideally guide students in achieving the “capstone” (level 4) performance for all learning goals within the Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric. Of these goals, the composite Civic Commitment and Identity one is perhaps the least well-developed in the course, in part because it is the least scaffolded by the required core courses in the major and because it is a learning goal that typically requires time and repeated experience/exposure to develop. To welcome students earlier into in-depth community-engaged work and to open opportunities for students to continue on projects subsequent to the course (e.g., independent study), we have recently opened the course to juniors who have completed the other core coursework.

We have not yet achieved intentional and universal scaffolding of community-based learning within the major at every level. Informally, many required and elective courses often incorporate civic learning principles and opportunities for engagement. However, of the Civic Engagement learning goals, our core curriculum has invested most heavily on Diversity of Communities and Cultures, Analysis of Knowledge, and Civic Communication, all of which are essential dimensions of civic engagement.  Typically our majors are provided with opportunities in these civic learning arenas to demonstrate performance levels 2 or 3. A smaller number of courses and specific faculty members promote learning in the remaining areas of Civic Identity, Commitment, Action, and Reflection, but these goals are not introduced formally for all majors until the Practicum.

Exemplary Courses That Highlight a Civic Lens
Course Title: Environmental Studies Community-Engaged Practicum
Course Summary
The Environmental Studies Community-Engaged Practicum (Practicum, ENVS 0401, formerly called the Environmental Studies Senior Seminar), offered since 1988, is required for all majors. It evolved as a capstone course that brings together students from all foci within the major into one classroom to collaborate and take a comprehensive approach to addressing on-the-ground environmental issues. Practicum students work in small groups with one of a variety of partners to complete a semester-long, community-engaged project. Topics vary by term and typically focus on local and regional environmental issues that offer the opportunity for students to apply their work in the classroom. Project work relies on students’ creativity, interdisciplinary perspectives, skills, and knowledge developed through their previous course work and other experiences (e.g., internships, study away, independent research).

Course Title: Contested Grounds: U.S. Cultures & Environments
Course Summary
Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have created a complex set of meanings pertaining to the environments (wild, pastoral, urban, marine) in which they live. From European-Native contact to the present, Americans’ various identities, cultures, and beliefs about the bio-physical world have shaped the stories they tell about “nature,” stories that sometimes share common ground, but often create conflicting and contested understandings of human-environment relationships. In this course, we investigate these varied and contested stories from multi-disciplinary perspectives in the humanities—history, literature, and religion--and include attention to race, class, gender, and environmental justice.

Course Title: Conservation & Environmental Policy
Course Summary and Goals
This course covers the formation and implementation of conservation and environmental policy at local, regional, state, and national levels. The course explores how stakeholders and institutions critically affect the policy process, focusing on historic as well as current policy challenges in the U.S. The course examines the exploration of both proximate as well as ultimate drivers of environmental degradation with a focus on relations between production and consumption, representation and regulation, rights and responsibilities, and information and norms. Students are asked to investigate how the intersection of social, economic and political forces has led to an unjust distribution of environmental benefits and burdens across communities within the United States. Beyond the walls of the classroom, students are expected to follow current environmental news. Course discussions assume students are conversant with current events, and class participation credit can be gained by bringing up connections between environmental news stories and course topics.

Exemplary Project Descriptions
The Community-Engaged Environmental Studies Practicum (see above) offers a rich array of projects that highlights our approach to civic engagement. Regardless of the faculty member leading the course, the topical themes of a given term/section, or the specific projects/partners, the design of the projects and flow of the semester are similar. All projects begin (prior to the start of the course) with extensive discussion and planning among the external partner, the faculty member leading the course, and the Coordinator for Community-Based Environmental Studies (a staff position dedicated to supporting the Practicum and other community-oriented program initiatives). Mutual partnership expectations are discussed and agreed to by us and the partners including: the level and nature of the reciprocity and communication the project will involve, the type of work students are typically able (and unable) to produce, and the educational goals of the course separate and apart from the community-oriented goals, among others. In addition to setting expectations, these discussions result in a project statement that captures basic background about the topic/theme and the partner’s needs, provides a small of set of “starter resources” for students (e.g., publications, datasets), and lays out the broad questions and challenges the partner is eager for students to tackle. Project statements are intentionally crafted to leave open the specific questions, approaches, and final products students might choose to engage and produce. There is an important (and tricky!) balance to strike between providing students with direction, while also allowing them substantial latitude in defining their project. Thus, at the start of each semester once students have selected their project and formed their project teams, they meet with their partner and begin a process of scoping a work plan.

Here are two examples, which are more fully described in our exemplary project section, that reveal the focus of two different areas of engagement in the Practicum:

Spring 2017 Seminar Theme: Energy Equity
All projects focus on inequality, energy burden, housing and associated programmatic and policy questions as part of Vermont’s evolving energy landscape and transition to a low carbon future.

Spring 2016 Seminar Theme: Food Systems and Sustainability

PROJECT #2 (Partner: Efficiency Vermont)
Greenhouse efficiency is one of a variety of topics of interest to the Energy Crosscutting Team at Efficiency Vermont. This project will research a range of non-fossil fuel based models for heating greenhouses and other techniques for season extension. These could include—but are not limited to—biomass fuels, ground source and air source heat pumps, animals, and compost.

Process for Adoption
Although we have not adopted a universal and scaffolded approach to inclusion of civic engagement within our curriculum, we have formally recognized its importance in a several ways, including the following:

  • The community-engaged Practicum has been required of all majors since 1988, and thus has remained a program priority that has been institutionally supported for quite some time.
  • For much of this time, the Practicum and other civic-oriented program initiatives have been institutionally supported by a full-time Coordinator for Community-Based Environmental Studies position
  • New hires into the program have prioritized candidates with experience and/or excitement for community-oriented pedagogy and all program faculty rotate through as Practicum instructors
  • In 2018, the Environmental Studies Program updated its mission statement, which includes language reflecting the importance of civic engagement, including the following goals for our program: “Through a commitment to interdisciplinary learning, our students develop:
  • the ability to anticipate and understand interconnectivity within complex and dynamic socio-ecological systems.
  • the practice of engaging, communicating, and collaborating to enrich our understanding of complex environmental systems and to advance solutions to the world’s most challenging environmental problems.
  • the habits of mind and heart to bring intellectually sophisticated and culturally aware knowledge of nature, environmental decision-making, and human-nature relationships into lives of compassionate, ethical, and engaged citizenship.”

Internal and External Influences
Community engagement has always been supported institutionally, including as examples, media coverage of student and faculty community-engaged (e.g., Practicum) work, support for the staff position to coordinate community-engaged learning, and small grants offered through the Center for Community Engagement. Individual faculty have also been supported in their community-engaged work through external grants, including the New England Regional Campus Compact, private foundations, and individual donors. While all support is helpful, institutional support for a staff position dedicated to community-engaged environmental learning (Coordinator for Community-Based Environmental Studies, CCBES) has been the most critical. Without this position, the Practicum would be exceedingly challenging to offer in its current (successful!) form. We are also grateful for the support provided to the Practicum (ENVS 0401) through the construction in 2007 of the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest (FECH), the first space on campus with space dedicated to the Environmental Studies Program. Specifically, FECH includes Practicum-dedicated studio workspace, all-hours student access, and basic media/technology for carrying out the projects.

Although the institution has been strongly supportive of our work, the Practicum and other forms of civic engagement in our curriculum would not continue without faculty who are committed to it on their own, separate and apart from external influences. Indeed, the Practicum is perhaps the earliest and most extensive community-engaged course on campus. The ES faculty have intentionally promoted community-engagement in our curriculum and into the program’s future by hiring new faculty who have experience with or who are otherwise passionate about civic engagement in their teaching. In addition, for more than 15 years the Environmental Studies Program has supported and encouraged a number of adjunct and visiting faculty who have brought community-engaged expertise to the program in elective course offerings that complement and augment the ES curricula.

Our success in the Practicum and the existence of the CCBES position has led to similar community-engaged coursework spreading to other departments and faculty members. Faculty members in the departments of Geography, Psychology, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Sociology/Anthropology, and Geology, among others, have tapped into the program’s experience and expertise with community-engaged work, as well as into the strong community relationships, knowledge of community needs, expertise, and coordination/facilitation skills of the CCBES.

Evidence
At the end of the Practicum, students provide their feedback on their Practicum experience in a variety of areas including:

  • Understanding of state and local issues
  • Project management skills
  • Listening skills
  • Working as part of a team
  • Awareness of other perspectives
  • Commitment to addressing community problems
  • Clarified career path
  • Likelihood of participation in civic activities

Specifically, students respond regarding the importance they ascribe to each area, their current (end of semester) level of confidence in their own skills in each area, and the degree to which participation in the Practicum helped them to improve in these areas. A summary of student responses (n = ~282 since 2011) regarding improvement in these areas is available online.

In nearly all of the formal long-term assessment areas listed above more than two thirds of students responded positively to the goals of the Practicum. More than two thirds reported their understanding of state and local issues was enhanced from their experience and that they improved their project management skills through the project work. Nearly two thirds felt an improvement in their ability to integrate and apply their knowledge and that the course had a positive impact on their teamwork skills. In addition, more than two thirds of students also felt the course improved their ability to see other perspectives and that the course increased their commitment to working on community problems.

We collect a variety of other assessment data, including open-ended student- and community partner responses and the importance/confidence/improvement responses (described above) as broken out by student focus area within Environmental Studies, participation in co-curricular experiences, and academic term. Some of this additional assessment data is provided in the following 2016 CUR Quarterly publication (Munroe, Diane. 2016. “Interdisciplinary Community-Connected Capstone Courses: A Model for Engaging Undergraduates with Public Policy.” CUR Quarterly vol. 36, no. 3, pp11-19. Council on Undergraduate Research).

Based on the accumulated evidence from the assessments since 2011, we are encouraged and pleased that the Practicum achieves three of the four criteria for a Civic-Minded Campus (Musil, p. 7), including Civic Literacy, Civic Inquiry, and Civic Action. The success of this course has inspired other academic departments at Middlebury College to adopt similar models for community-engaged or project-based work.

Words of Advice
Because we are not yet at the point where community engagement is intentionally and universally built into  the major at every level, our advice, closely adapted from Munroe 2016, centers on lessons learned in our most successful and comprehensive incorporation of civic engagement, the Community-Engaged Environmental Studies Practicum. Community-connected classes are challenging for a number of reasons, including (relative to a more conventional classroom-based course)

  • the greater likelihood of unmet or unclear project expectations.
  • a desire for agenda-driven (rather than research-driven) outcomes.
  • the rhythms of the “real world” conflicting with the rhythm of a semester.
  • the difficulty of truly incorporating a range of disciplinary perspectives and approaches.

Based on lessons learned over the history of the Practicum, we recommend five replicable best-practices:

  1. Appropriately define and frame the project’s challenge. Projects should be designed through direct and extensive collaboration among the community partner(s) and faculty members. A reciprocal relationship should be established and maintained from the beginning. Project research questions should be framed in a way that invites a range of disciplinary perspectives and that allows students to offer their unique perspectives and approaches. The goal is to strike a balance between providing sufficient guidance to achieve something tangible within your timeframe, but open-ended enough to encourage student agency.
  2. Develop long-term partnerships. Once a productive and successful relationship is established, cultivating this into a long-term partnership for continuing project collaborations promotes effective learning and greater community impact. Long-term partnerships can include ongoing conversations about the program’s research directions and partnering in other ways (e.g., internships, student independent studies, or thesis research). Community entities can offer more to the collaborations if they have built them into their work planning.
  3. Maintain high levels of communication. In addition to three face-to-face meetings with partners integrated into our 12-week syllabus, students must develop a plan for maintaining a high level of communication with their partner outside of class. Additionally, project work plans, progress reports, and drafts are reviewed by all parties.
  4. Utilize expertise in the area. Make good use of all the expertise on your campus and in your local community to engage students with a range of perspectives and approaches to their research challenge.
  5. Arrange support for coordination of the project. The Practicum benefits from direct staff support who coordinates and provides needed continuity associated with the four recommendations above, particularly regarding fostering long-term relationships. If dedicated staff time or support through a state or regional Campus Compact Office is not available, plan on considerable lead time for planning and potentially a smaller scope to the projects. A smaller, better-executed project is likely to serve all parties better than a larger, complex project that suffers from inadequate support.

Finally, we note that scaffolding is important. It is quite clear (and not surprising) that those civic engagement learning goals that students are tackling for the first time in the Practicum are not generally mastered at as high a level as those other civic engagement learning goals that have been better scaffolded throughout the major. As advice to ourselves as much as others, engaging faculty in determining which learning goals are priorities and then working intentionally to scaffold those throughout the major would improve outcomes.

Looking for more information on the courses and projects? Please return to the top of the page and click on the “Exemplary Course Specifics” and “Exemplary Project Details” buttons found under the campus logo.