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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Unique School: College of the Atlantic

Air Date: Week of

A small college at Bar Harbor on the coast of Maine has some big ideas. Andrea DeLeon profiles the College of the Atlantic, which focuses its four year curriculum on the study of Human Ecology and is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary.


CURWOOD: People concerned about environmental change are sometimes criticized for failing to see what others call the big picture. For instance, valuing rare plants and animals over jobs and communities. But a small college on the coast of Maine maintains a steady focus on the big picture. Students of the College of the Atlantic spend 4 years steeped in the study of human ecology. Andrea DeLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting has this profile of the pioneering school as it prepares for its 25th anniversary.

(Calling gulls and flowing water)

DeLEON: College of the Atlantic is synonymous with its setting: a former estate right on the ocean in Bar Harbor at the doorstep of Acadia National Park. Anywhere on the small campus you are within earshot of gulls, fishing vessels, wind and water. And the ocean is a primary classroom for the school, where students study whales aboard a research vessel and map clam flats with the aid of computer imaging.

(Gull calls continue)

DeLEON: Their creative work is rich with images of the sea, too. It must be tempting to drift off during a class and stare out at the watery expanse. But on this morning there is no dreaming, only nervous preparation.

(Students milling indoors)

DeLEON: It is 2 weeks before graduation and a group of advanced land use students are preparing for their final presentation. Their mission: to convince the developer, who has just purchased an historic Bar Harbor farm, to consider conserving at least part of the valuable parcel.

WOMAN: Today we will present you with an overview of the information we have gathered about the property, followed by a summary of the zoning and its restrictions. Then we will describe 3 scenarios we have explored as potential uses of the property and the various --

DeLEON: The students are nervous but it's clear they have the developer's interest. The meeting seems more like a session before a local planning board than a class of undergraduates. But then, these undergraduates have also testified before the local planning board, arguing for a change in zoning they feel would benefit the town of Bar Harbor. Its typical of the hands-on approach to education at College of the Atlantic, where students and faculty seem to view everything from transportation issues at Acadia National Park to small-town politics as a learning opportunity. Theirs is a very big classroom. The school denies the separation between biology and literature, between environmental science and fine art. Every undergraduate receives the same degree: Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology.

BOARDMAN: Human Ecology for me is really trying to see the relationships between the things that are in the world.

DeLEON: Richard Boardman is the college's academic dean.

BOARDMAN: On the scientific side it emphasizes plants and animals and those organisms. When we start to bring humans into that, many other kinds of issues become involved issues that have to do with cultural institutions, values, ideas, dreams, hopes and so on. And it becomes a much more complicated study.

DeLEON: Like many on the faculty, Dean Boardman's move to College of the Atlantic 17 years ago was something of a rebellion against the traditional academic institutions in which he was trained. This school is radically different. The teachers are not grouped into disciplines and departments. While one specializes in science and another in history, all are faculty in human ecology, and all are expected to bring that holistic perspective into their teaching.

BOARDMAN: The problems that are in the world, environmental problems or social problems or other kinds of problems, are themselves really complex. And that it is often unnecessary to have this kind of point of view, to be able to understand what the problem actually is, and also maybe how to address it.

DeLEON: College of the Atlantic graduates go on to do many things, but a good number go into land use planning, environmental education, careers in environmental policy and the sciences. Its course schedule includes environmental journalism and chemistry and philosophy of nature. There's a seminar on eco-tourism and one called voluntary simplicity. And even the more traditional fare, like calculus and Shakespeare, are taught with a human ecologist's perspective whenever possible. The school was conceived around the time of the first Earth Day in an era when so-called environmental education was finding new interest, and when concern about the quality of the nation's air and water was high. Founding faculty member William Carpenter says the school was formed around the radical notion that a traditional education was actually the cause of the world's environmental problems.

CARPENTER: It wasn't uneducated or ignorant people that were causing the environmental crisis. It was actually, you know, people at -- the captains of industry and the leaders of research were allowing this to happen. And I think it was felt that it must be something wrong with their education.

DeLEON: 1995 graduate Damon Lear makes a living dragging for scallops in Penobscot Bay. Eventually he hopes to help manage the local fisheries. He says his COA education combined with commercial fishing experience allow him to see all sides of a controversial subject.

LEAR: I think fisheries are important to the culture of this area, and its tough to -- its tough to deal with management up here from people who really don't have the experience. Making a living that way and -- and knowing the local culture, and its something that's worth preserving. It'll take science and social studies combined together.

(A crowd gathered for commencement exercises)

DeLEON: While many other so-called experimental colleges of about the same age have languished or adopted more traditional missions, College of the Atlantic has remained stable, quietly developing research expertise in sophisticated computer mapping and the whales that inhabit the colleges North Atlantic back yard. Dan Dendanto started out sweeping floors at Allied Whale, the school's whale study center. Five years after graduating from COA, he is the director of the center's Fin Whale Study Program.

DENDANTO: If you are so determined, you really can get your hands involved with real world research projects. I think, as an undergraduate I was really prepared to enter the research world in a capacity that surpassed even my peers who had Bachelors of Science degrees compared to my Bachelors of Arts and Human Ecology.

(A band plays)

BOARDMAN: It gives me a great deal of pleasure to welcome all of you today to this graduation ceremony, the 24th in the history of the college --

DeLEON: In early June friends and family of the school's 50 senior students gathered under a big tent on the north lawn. Numerous graduates spoke. One offered a Native American prayer of gratitude to the earth; another referred to his self-designed course of study as a calculated wandering. But such wanderings may not suit all students. Many say wallflowers would not flourish in a program that requires students to set their own course of study and encourages them to aggressively question their teachers, each other, and themselves.

MAN: You were such a bad influence on my child! (Laughter)

DeLEON: New graduate Valerie Cope concentrated on creative writing at the school. She admitted that the flexibility could be overwhelming, but she hopes the multidisciplinary focus will help her.

COPE: I think that eventually this, having this freedom is going to help me. Because I've been able to explore the sciences and arts and design, and integrate them into my writing.

DeLEON: Valerie Cope says it may be tough for her to make the transition into the traditional graduate writing program she's headed for at Sarah Lawrence College. Jaime Torres will soon begin work at the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Venezuela. He says it's the perfect position for a young man who defines himself as a human ecologist.

TORRES: He's an anthropologist, he's an artist. He's a biologist. And most importantly of all he's a human being.

DeLEON: Jaime Torres joins the 850 other alumni of the College of the Atlantic. The Bar Harbor school celebrates its 25th birthday next year. Faculty member William Carpenter says coming of age poses its own challenge to College of the Atlantic: to remain fresh and willing to question itself and the world around it. For Living on Earth this is Andrea DeLeon.



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