University of Vermont

Walt Poleman Receives Prestigious Thoreau Grant to Grow Environmental Innovators and Leaders at GreenHouse

Senior Lecturer Walt Poleman develops environmental leaders by starting with the basics.
Senior Lecturer Walt Poleman develops environmental leaders by starting with the basics.

Senior Lecturer Walter Poleman (UVM-MS ’95, NR-PhD ’10) has received a prestigious $35,000 grant from the Henry David Thoreau Foundation which awards only one or two grants each year to support faculty and undergraduates in programs that promote creative action and collective study of environmental issues, with an understanding that local is global. The Foundation encourages cooperative efforts with community organizations and businesses to cultivate future environmental leaders.

Walt built upon the legacy of Retired Lecturer John Shane (FOR '81, MS-FOR '88) and Part-time Lecturer David Brynn (FOR '76, MS-NRP '91) who received a Thoreau grant to help propel RSENR’s Green Forestry Education Initiative at the Jericho Research Forest.  Walt proposed developing a curriculum to foster environmental innovation and leadership in undergraduates through an “ecological design collaboratory,” coined by proponent RSENR Interim Dean Jon Erickson.

An ecologist and graduate of UVM’s Field Naturalist master’s program, Walt analyzes Vermont landscapes on a spectrum from rural forested to small town to the Burlington area.  He calls these landscapes “social-ecological systems that make excellent springboards for community engagement.”

In the mid-1990s, Walt began carving out a teaching position in the Field Naturalist program, in its sister master’s in Ecological Planning, and in the Rubenstein School’s undergraduate curriculum.  Through connections with Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to cultivating conservation stewardship for a sustainable future, he conducted natural history workshops with a community connection.

Interweaving his teaching experiences and community connections, Walt developed the PLACE program or Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Engagement at UVM with Shelburne Farms as partner.  This work evolved into his doctoral research in the Rubenstein School.

Each year, since 2001, Walt and students from Jeffrey Hughes’ Field Naturalist and Deane Wang’s Ecological Planning programs, choose a place or a community in Vermont and collaborate with local schools, town commissions, historical societies, and conservation organizations.  PLACE integrates the Field Naturalist program approach to landscape analysis with Shelburne Farms’ natural history programming.

Tying together presentations, field trips, workshops, and visioning forums, PLACE staff and students help community members explore and understand the natural and cultural history of their town from geology to ecology to land use and to plans for a sustainable future.  Local teachers earn credits and bring new place-based knowledge back to their classrooms.

Most of Walt’s efforts in place-based education are in mentoring graduate students.  With colleagues Lecturer Steve Libby (UVM '76, MS-NRP '87) and PhD candidate Karen Nordstrom, Walt directs the GreenHouse Residential Learning Community on campus. Here, he turns his attention to 250 undergraduate first- and second-year students who reside in a LEED-certified dormitory as an interdisciplinary, sustainable community where they strengthen their commitment to environmental responsibility and social justice.

Walt is eager to engage these undergraduates in more of an intimate place-based experience, using design and build projects that incorporate features of their surroundings, local materials, and local craftspeople. “In a time when we are diverging from our dependence on fossil fuels and mass production, UVM’s GreenHouse community is the perfect setting for our undergraduates to “re-learn” forgotten, basic design/build skills, using local ingenuity and materials,” he explains.

Walt plans to apply Thoreau Foundation funds to raw materials and programs to develop curricula in the ecological design collaboratory. Students will learn the science behind ecological design from renowned ecological designer Professor Emeritus John Todd; the design and construction skills of building from campus design, engineering, and art experts and local mentors; and the utility of the finished product to benefit the community.

He envisions teams of students working with local wood, stone, clay, or fibers from Shelburne Farms or Jericho Research Forest and with mentors from Shelburne Farms, Yestermorrow Design/Build School, and Vermont Design Institute.  He sees a team of students constructing a small greenhouse to grow local food that benefits a Burlington community group. Another team works with Vermont furniture maker Bruce Beeken to design and craft a piece of furniture, and still another team fabricates a portable evaporator to learn the art of maple sugaring in partnership with local residents of South Burlington.

As this coming fall’s new instructor of NR 1, the gateway course that introduces all first-year RSENR students to the natural history of Vermont, Walt intends to connect the course with the collaboratory through peer-mentoring of first-year students by third- and fourth-year Rubenstein School students and GreenHouse leaders.  “Eventually, we won’t need to bring in outside specialists and leaders,” says Walt.  “We’ll be growing them ourselves right here at GreenHouse.”