University of Vermont

Capstone or Stepping Stone?

For Students and Community Organizations, NR 206 Reaches Far Beyond the Classroom

Seniors Bekah Gordon (left) and Lily Morgan pose with Angella Gibbons of Earth Walk Vermont; the pair created an interpretive map of the Earth Walk property for their 206 project.
Seniors Bekah Gordon (left) and Lily Morgan pose with Angella Gibbons of Earth Walk Vermont; the pair created an interpretive map of the Earth Walk property for their 206 project.

One afternoon last semester I was running with my dog on the trail that winds along the Winooski River at the Intervale and, as a frequent user, noticed that some restoration work had been done.  Soon enough, I approached a sign on a tree that provided information on the importance of healthy riparian buffers, the negative impacts of invasive plants, and the Japanese knotweed removal project that had been designed and implemented by Rubenstein School students in NR 206: Environmental Problem-solving and Impact Assessment.   I smiled, continued down the trail, and thought about how many RSENR seniors have worked with the Intervale Conservation Nursery over the years as their service-learning project for the class.

Seth Gillim, the nursery’s assistant manager, says that as with any non-profit, “there are a lot of things we’d like to do but simply aren’t feasible because the day-to-day operations keep us so busy.  The partnership between the Intervale Conservation Nursery and NR 206 is invaluable because it expands the focus of our work and helps support our mission of protecting and restoring Vermont’s waterways.”

The students’ work with the Intervale Conservation Nursery is just one example of a semester-long, self-selected NR 206 capstone project, in which all seniors in the class engage.  Throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, the 181 RSENR seniors in NR 206 will have cumulatively been involved in 58 distinct projects through partnerships with 41 different organizations.  Many community partner organizations, including EarthWalk Vermont, Crow’s Path Field School, Shelburne Farms, the Sustainability Academy, Friends of Burlington Gardens, and the Winooski River Parks District regularly partner with – and in some cases depend on – NR 206 students.

Joanna May, coordinator of the Camel’s Hump Middle School and Richmond Elementary School Community Garden Project notes, “NR 206 students have been invaluable in helping us reach our goals by bringing infectious energy, commitment, and creative problem-solving skills to the table.”   Similarly, Dan Cahill, Land Steward with Burlington’s Department of Parks & Recreation and a 2003 RSENR graduate, says he “looks forward to the partnership opportunities that come along with every semester; over the years NR 206 students have played a role in many projects that continue to have lasting impacts on Burlington’s park system.”

While a prominent feature, the service-learning project is just one component of NR 206, a course that has been designed to help RSENR seniors integrate their undergraduate experiences, knowledge, skills, values, passions, and lifelong goals to help prepare them for their next chapter as natural resource professionals.  The NR 206 experience is, as course instructor Matt Kolan appropriately indicates in the course syllabus, “a hands-on adventure in purposeful thinking and interdisciplinary problem-solving.”   The capstone project is combined with course lectures, visiting speakers, in-class dialogue sessions, and critical reflections to encourage the students to explore and consider how successful problem-solvers work while refining their own critical thinking, writing, presenting, leadership, decision-making, interpersonal, and inner personal skills.

But NR 206 hasn’t always followed this format.  Adopted as part of the core curriculum in the late 1980s and originally called Assessing Environmental Impact, the capstone course has been taught by Deane Wang, John (Doc) Donnelly, Willard Morgan, and Jeffrey Hughes.  It wasn’t until Matt took over teaching the class in 2005 that the service-learning aspect became a focus of NR 206.  That year, Matt attended the Faculty Fellows for Service-Learning Program offered by UVM’s Office of Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning (CUPS). Based largely on the training’s focus on George Kuh’s High-Impact Educational Practices, Matt decided to incorporate pedagogies around experiential learning and intentional critical reflection into the course.

For the past sixteen semesters, Matt has taught NR 206, ever evolving its content and format in response to feedback from students and lab instructors.  He knows well the challenges of teaching one of the last required courses for RSENR seniors, including – but not limited to – finding authentic ways to integrate the knowledge and skills of such a diverse student population, maintaining meaningful community partner relationships over time, helping students to see 206 as the opportunity that it really can be, and prevailing over the senior slump.  Yet the rewards exceed these challenges; each semester he witnesses students develop their inner resilience, sense of efficacy, and confidence, sees the passion of RSENR seniors as they consider NR 206 a stepping stone into life after UVM, and appreciates the transformative experiences some students have when they realize and overcome their blind spots.

As a lab instructor for the course this year, I’ve seen that resilience, that passion, and those transformative experiences that make NR 206 a profound educational and real-life experience for so many RSENR seniors.  In a final reflection paper last semester, one student wrote: “as it turns out, this class was truthfully the greatest avenue for me to take at this junction, the tail end of the Rubenstein trail.  I know I can walk away from this class without ever really leaving it behind because the people, the project, and the course material are all legitimately stuck in the part of my brain that files things as ‘worth remembering’.”  Another noted that “my 206 project has no doubt been the most academically enriching activity in which I have taken part this semester, if not throughout my educational career.”

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a request to NR 206 student alumni (from the past two years that I have been involved with the class) and lab instructors for the first three words that came to mind when reflecting on the course (see included image).  “Rewarding”, “challenging”, “engaging”, ”inspiring”, “revealing”, “introspective”, “relationships”, “provoking”, “integrity”, “formative”, “fun”, and “unique” were words that came up over and over again in the 40+ responses I received, along with some not-so common phrases such as “bobble-head enthusiasm” and “practicing humility to make change”.  What strikes me about this exercise is not the collection of words, but the fact that so many past students responded immediately.

This spring a group of four NR 206 group students will be working with the Intervale Conservation Nursery.  For Gillim, last semester’s research and hands-on efforts served as the foundation for this semester’s project, which, among other things, includes a full inventory of the 1.5 acre floodplain buffer strip.  When mud season subsides, I’ll start to run the trail again and will keep a lookout for more signs that NR 206 was here.