College to launch new summer environmental studies program

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College is world-renowned for its summer Language Schools and the Bread Loaf School of English. Starting next year, the college will add one more intensive summer program to its portfolio: a six-week, interdisciplinary, “full-engagement” School of the Environment, which will bring students, faculty and guest speakers from around the world to Vermont.
“When the students come here for six weeks they are going to be fully engaged in a study of the environment that embraces the interdisciplinary thinking that is required to understand the issues and the solutions to environmental issues,” said Stephen Trombulak, a Middlebury professor of environmental and biosphere studies who will serve a three-year term as the School of the Environment’s founding director. “Their curriculum is also going to embrace the importance of a global perspective on the environment.”
College trustees approved the program at their May meeting. Though for the first two years, the program will be aimed toward rising college juniors and seniors from undergraduate programs with a demonstrated interest in the environment and at least one college-level lab course, Middlebury is open to broadening the range of students. The possibilities would include a graduate program, an introductory program targeting high school or first-year college students, and the option of expanding beyond Middlebury’s Vermont campus to satisfy demand.
The School of the Environment was a longstanding dream of Tombulak’s, who chaired the committee of environmental studies staff that originally proposed the idea of a summer program back in the 1990s.
“Middlebury is preeminent in a number of fields: foreign languages, literature, international studies,” Trombulak said. “But I would say we are also preeminent in environmental studies … Of all of the college’s areas of preeminence, the study of the environment is the one that doesn’t have an immersive program. We don’t have a summer program, we don’t have a study abroad program.”
Now, that will change. In 2010, Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay decided that the time was right to propose the idea of a summer environmental studies program again (back in the 1990s, Tombulak said, the timing was wrong for a number of reasons). Trombulak and Jenks-Jay met with Michael Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad and Graduate Programs.
“Geisler loved the idea,” said Trombulak, who re-emphasized the collaboration among people in many departments that made the School of the Environment a possibility throughout an interview on Tuesday. “So from late 2010 until this May we kept fine-tuning the proposal and considering all the angles until we had every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, took the proposal to the trustees at their May meeting and they authorized the launch of the program.”
Middlebury’s environmental studies program, launched in 1965, was the first program in the United States to offer a major. Trombulak points to its students’ varied accomplishments throughout the decades. The college’s recycling program, for example, was a final project from the first year of the department’s hands-on senior seminar, “ES 0401.”
Trombulak said great pains had been taken to ensure that the School of the Environment does not simply replicate what the department does during the academic year. Students in the inaugural program will have three courses: an interdisciplinary field study, a skills-based practicum and an advanced elective with an international and global emphasis. Mentors and speakers who are experts in environmental sustainability across a variety of sectors including business, government and nonprofit will be invited to campus to mentor the students.
“What makes this program different from anything we do here, and from any competing program out there, is that we’re going to have, in addition to the content, a strong focus on leadership skills,” he said. “Everything that they do in the classroom is then going to be put into the context of, ‘OK, now what are you going to do with this information?’ You have this skill set, you’ve been talking to these short-term guest residents, mentors if you will, how is it that you would mount a response to the information that you’ve been given whether it is flooding in Bangladesh or global warming or world food production or the importance of GMOs for increasing production but the risk of ecological collapse.”
Trombulak believes that given the range and importance of issues that a study of the environment will bring students into contact with, a solid skill set to take action across a variety of institutions and sectors is a necessary component of higher education.
“I think that in the 21st century, there’s a real need for educators everywhere — not just Middlebury but everywhere — to be thinking about deliberately giving students the tools to do something with the knowledge … What we’re trying to do is teach students how to be effective agents of change.”

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