Happy to have worked with Diane Cardwell of The New York Times and Catherine Bright of Fenton Communications to help place this story on behalf of the College of the Atlantic while serving as their PR rep in 2014.
BAR HARBOR, Me. — Like many residents of this picturesque island town on the edge of Acadia National Park, Zach Soares had trouble keeping his house warm, going through five cords of wood in the winter. So he jumped at an offer last year for free energy improvements through a class project at the College of the Atlantic, where he works.
As a result, Mr. Soares ended up burning about a cord less of wood — typically about a $200 savings — this winter and was so satisfied with the results that he now plans to insulate a drafty 1880s farmhouse he is buying.
The program that upgraded Mr. Soares’s home here on Mount Desert Island, as well as those of a handful of other college employees, was, at root, an academic exercise: It required students to research, collaborate, calculate, market and execute, part of the College of the Atlantic’s innovative, project-based approach to education.
But it was one that aspired to be much more. As universities and other institutions grapple with ways to fight climate change — whether by divesting from coal companies or installing wind turbines on their grounds — the College of the Atlantic is nudging its students to reach outside the school’s boundaries and start changing the real world.
CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times
Installing solar panels on campus or composting — as many colleges already do — will not be enough to effect significant change, said Darron Collins, president and a graduate of the college. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s kind of a drop in the bucket,” he said.
“The way to scale it up is to get our students to really think differently about it and for them to make advances on renewable energies off campus and once they graduate,” he said.
Other academic institutions use project-based learning, and students at technical powerhouses like Stanford, M.I.T. and the California Institute of Technology are busy inventing new energy products and approaches. But few colleges have taken on climate change — and alternative energy as a solution — with as much fervor as the College of the Atlantic, weaving it into the school’s curriculum and operations.
A team of students in a class called the Physics and Mathematics of Sustainable Energy, for example, met last term with companies in Portland to determine if it would make economic sense to bring a large-scale anaerobic digester, an apparatus used to break down organic waste, to a dairy farm on Mount Desert Island.
And projects continue to move ahead from a program started last year thatsent about a dozen students to Samso, a Danish island that produces more energy from renewable sources than it uses. That program, organized with the Island Institute in Rockland, Me., has already resulted in bulk purchases of energy-efficient lighting, heating products and energy upgrades for homes. There is also the potential installation of solar arrays on several Maine islands.
Some of the students who participated are continuing to pursue energy projects after they graduate, including Nick Urban, who is now working for a renewable-energy developer, and Saren Peetz, who is hoping to raise enough money to extend her efforts to help Mount Desert Island better meet its energy needs and potentially grow into a self-sufficient, renewable-energy community like Samso.
There, Ms. Peetz saw “this whole idea of community leadership but also bringing everybody to the table,” she said. “I just really realized that that’s what I want to do with my life.”
For small islands like Mount Desert, the need is acute. Fuel is imported at great expense, leaving year-round residents in a vicious cycle of sorts: The more money they spend on conventional energy, the less there is to find alternative sources.
A small, experimental school founded in 1969, with 35 students, by a priest and an entrepreneur, the College of the Atlantic takes an interdisciplinary approach to human ecology, the study of the interaction between people and their social and physical environments. There are no departments, and the approximately 350 enrolled students learn by doing.
Consider the description on the school’s website: “College of the Atlantic is for idealists with elbow grease.”
“The mission of the school is to create the people who can create the change,” said Jay Friedlander, chairman of the sustainable business program, which includes the Hatchery, an on-campus incubator. “And then the school itself is a big social entrepreneurship experiment.”
It is an approach that is catching on, said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, at institutions as disparate as Cornell, Mount Holyoke and the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Part of the impetus is that educators see it as a way to better engage students with some of the interests they already have, as well as to prepare them for workplaces that increasingly seek employees with the collaborative skills that applied projects can foster.
“Organizing teaching around problems and cross-disciplinary work is much more aligned with what the world needs and what the economy demands,” Ms. Humphreys said.
Still, she said, the commitment to green energy at the College of the Atlantic is unusual.
In 2007, the school announced that it had become carbon neutral, largely through the purchase of credits to offset its emissions. Six years later, its trustees voted to divest from fossil fuel interests, and the school embarked on an ambitious plan to become free of fossil fuels by 2050 by reducing consumption while increasing its production and purchase of energy from renewable sources.
In keeping with the school’s overall approach, the effort is being designed, carried out and monitored through student projects.
That endeavor, and the school’s growing reach among Maine residents, has accelerated since the Danish trip, which Mr. Friedlander helped oversee with Anna Demeo, a professor of physics and engineering who directs the energy program.
“We’ve really gotten our stride where this community knows us more and knows what we’re doing,” Ms. Demeo said. “Samso really raised the profile and gave this whole effort teeth in a way that it has real staying power.”
Of course, because it is a school, not all projects have panned out. The wind turbine that a class installed on one of the college’s farms has proved inefficient and not cost-effective, Ms. Demeo said, because a town ordinance kept it from its optimum height. Students trying to analyze energy use of the refrigerators at a local store reported in one of her classes in May that they may have blown two fuses.
But the student efforts have generally been met with approval.
“What we were doing wasn’t quite cutting it, and just having some good suggestions really helped,” said John Barnes, who is in charge of carpentry in the buildings-and-grounds department at the college and received a free energy audit and air sealing last year as a result of a project. It was the “little kick-start” he said he needed to make changes around the house.
“People sometimes say if lights made the same noise as dripping water, more people would shut their lights off,” he said. Just to be able to see where his house was losing heat, he said, “lights that fire and gets you motivated about fixing things.”
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