Sterling pioneered environmental stewardship education. But what are the philosophies behind such an education? Those who shaped Sterling explain.

— by Jess Clarke

When John E. “Jed” Williamson became president of Sterling College in 1996, some of the college’s signature features were already in place: a bountiful vegetable garden; student-built barns with chickens, pigs, and draft horses; campus woods that were being worked; and, for that time, such distinctive courses as Watershed Management and A Reverence for Wood.

Even then, as a college that offered a single Associate of Arts degree in Rural Resource Management, Sterling was pioneering the experiential, environmental stewardship education for which the college is renowned today.    

Williamson, who took vegetables from his own garden to one of his interviews for the president’s position, was hands-on himself during his ten-year tenure. He recalls working with students to exterminate rats at the compost pile, collect a bushel of fiddleheads on a canoe trip, build a climbing wall, and harvest vegetables, among other activities.     

“In all of the stories are found the essential ingredients for a college deeply committed to using the experiential education cycle throughout the curriculum . . . Experiential education is learning through experiences, not from them,” says Williamson, who guided Sterling to become a four-year baccalaureate degree program in 1997.

“Accreditation was reaffirmed at the academic level the year before I retired. This helped move us another step closer to sustainability and—equally as important— resiliency,” Williamson says.

Sterling’s history is marked by resiliency.

The college’s transition from a traditional boys’ prep school called the Sterling School to being a leader in environmental stewardship education was rooted in Grassroots, launched in ’74 as a one-year certificate program.

Grassroots, which originally offered college credits through the University of Vermont Extension program, provided experiential education in agriculture, forestry, and wildlife management.

“All students took a triad of courses directly related to stewardship and sustainability: Conservation Studies, Soil Science, and Resource Issues. To these three, Ecology was soon added,” says Professor Emeritus Ned Houston, who started at the college in ’78 and was interim president in the fall of 1996.

“We felt strongly that students should know something of the systems which underlie all biological production—soils and ecosystems—should understand basics of our land-use history and land-management laws and agencies—Conservation Studies—and should be able to understand and articulate positions in public discussions about resources—Resource Issues,” Houston recalls.

“We now expect much greater understanding after four years of study than one, but the intention remains to develop students with an appreciation of natural systems, their fragility and resilience, and our human responsibilities to sustain those systems for future generations,” he says.

In ’78, Sterling gained approval to grant college credit through Grassroots, and the college officially changed its name to Sterling Institute. Then in ’83, the Grassroots certificate became the first year of a two-year program that led to the A.A. degree in Rural Resource Management, and the school was renamed Sterling College.

Sterling’s prominence in sustainable food systems also began with the Grassroots program, which originated such current staple practices as composting, growing organic foods, and using draft horses for farming.

“From the start, students have worked on the farm, worked in the woods, planted and harvested, measured and assessed, and grappled with complex, often conflicting questions,” Houston says.

An example of such a question is which type of harvesting technology to use in wood lots.

“Are horses always a better, lower-impact choice?” Houston says. “What about economic considerations? If a wood lot crew of ten, working with hand tools and skidding with horses, puts only $30 or $40 worth of wood on the landing by the end of the day, how can that amount even come close to paying the bills? By such direct experience, students learn that stewardship involves multiple layers of choices and much balancing of imperatives.”

Providing those types of direct experiences is a Sterling hallmark that reinforces learning in powerful ways.

Houston recalls several semester-long trips to the Himalayas during his tenure. On one service trip, he worked with students and locals to make concrete for a village sanitation facility in a remote area.

“That meant descending several hundred feet to the river to pick up sand, hauling rocks as big as we could carry to our site, reducing them to pebbles with mauls and hammers, and hauling 50-pound bags of cement in from the nearest road a half hour or so away,” Houston says.

A student told him afterward, “I’ll never take a backhoe for granted again.”

The Himalayan expeditions were among “the greatest fortunate surprises of my years at Sterling,” Houston notes. “These Mountain Culture Semesters did what I think education really is supposed to do: they gave us physical and intellectual challenges that forced us—students and faculty—to reconsider many of our normal expectations and think hard about our values and aspirations.” 

The primary collective value at Sterling always has been environmental stewardship. 

“Sterling’s curriculum is well-reflected in its mission statement, which includes producing stewards of the environment. Thus, environmental stewardship finds itself part of the whole—the books and courses, the experiential and the seat-time, the faculty practitioners, breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . the communities of the Northeast Kingdom, the Work College ethos,” former president Will Wootton says.

“It’s a testament to the liberal arts, so adaptable over the centuries . . . that Sterling College can put substance to such a new thing as environmental stewardship. The thin line of environmental literature is filling out, expanding into subject areas never, or thinly, explored. The sciences have awoken, and their efforts, too, have shifted toward understanding the rapid global changes and, critically, how human life and society may be affected,” Wootton says. “Curricula also have changed across higher education: faculty responding to the world around them and bringing it into their teaching; in Sterling’s case, into an entire college.”

Encouraging students to respond to the world around them is fundamental to Sterling’s environmental stewardship education, which provides many opportunities to tackle hard questions and thorny challenges. That approach began with Grassroots, too.

The Grassroots program “was about challenge. Here’s problems, here’s difficulties, here’s how you work it out,” says former Board of Trustees Chair Marvin Brown.

Williamson embraces that concept. For a statement he prepared as part of his application for the president’s position, he wrote, “I believe that the teacher’s primary role is one of being a problem-poser rather than a problem-solver.”

Importantly, Sterling teaches students to be comfortable with uncertainty.

“Many of the questions I remember posing for students still remain as hard to answer definitively,” Houston says.

“When I think about environmental stewardship, I find myself beset by troubling questions. It is not an easy path to navigate on a personal or institutional level. However, it is a crucial obligation. More than ever, we need to reject simplistic answers and really engage deeply the complex process of living. We really need ‘working hands and working minds,’” he notes.

Sterling’s working hands and minds bring forth another type of stewardship at which the college excels—nurturing the campus community. It’s just as important, challenging, and rewarding as environmental stewardship.

“An aspect of stewardship foundational to Sterling’s curriculum involves community and developing and sustaining human as well as natural capital. The series of courses known as Bounder, integrated into every student’s experience from Grassroots to the B.A. program, focuses on working together and taking care of each other in the service of higher goals and greater achievement,” Houston says. “Expedition has always been a high point in the Bounder program, and at its core it is much less about specific winter-camping survival skills and much more about interpersonal survival skills. The question of how might I survive becomes how might we survive—even thrive—in the face of challenge and adversity. No greater question faces us as we seek a sustainable future.”

Through Sterling’s blend of classroom time, experiential learning, and community-building experiences, students gain a substantial grounding in how to prepare for their own future.

“The three components of academic conceptual study, rigorous implementation efforts and community awareness provide a solid foundation for active involvement in environmental stewardship. Students can build on that foundation to pursue diverse interests and careers,” Houston says.

The Sterling model ensures that the college delivers an education that remains cutting-edge, hands-on and relevant.

I re-read the mission statement—a critical guide in good times and bad, and not easily disjointed,” Wootton says. “I think about the Work Program. I read alumni profiles and add them to the dozens I carry around in my head. What I see is not the regular stuff of the past, what Sterling is trying to achieve. It’s all not quite like anything else around. It’s as thick and nutriment-filled as [a] forest floor. It is already, and in its entirety, speaking to the future that’s upon us.”

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