University of Vermont

University Communications


Students Teach Peers at the Intervale

By Jon Reidel Article published October 5, 2004

Hudspeth/Ali class
Senior Nate Trachimowicz (right) and other upper-division students are consulting with the Intervale and sharing what they've learned with other students. (Photo:Bill DiLillo)

Tom Hudspeth, professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, was incorporating elements of service-learning into his courses long before the recent rush by universities to make the concept a key component of academic programs.

His most recent attempt to include service-learning — a method of engaging students in activities that address human and community needs through activities designed to promote student learning and development — comes in the form of a partnership with the Intervale Foundation. Seniors in Hudspeth's “Environmental Interpretation” course recently gave guided tours of the Intervale to 250 students in the “Introduction to Environmental Studies” taught by Saleem Ali, assistant professor in the Rubenstein School.

In addition to honing their teaching skills, Hudspeth’s students developed an interpretive master plan for the Intervale Foundation that includes self-guided trails, brochures, signs, exhibits and Web pages. Some of the student recommendations will be implemented with guidance from Lindsey Ketchel, program director at the Intervale Foundation, a non-profit that develops land and farm-based enterprise to generate economic and social opportunities while protecting natural resources.

Ketchel says students gain hands-on experience by working for a local non-profit, which in turn gets their expertise and free labor.

“The beauty is that these students can actually experience consulting in a real environment, with real clients and real deliverables,” Ketchel says. “When I was in college it all seemed so hypothetical. Tom’s class has helped us come up with innovative ways to expand our visitor experience. They’ve given us recommendations that will eventually be implemented. It’s a win-win situation. I hope we continue to expand on these opportunities.”

Students teaching students
Nathaly Filion, a senior in the environmental interpretation course, says leading parts of the 90-minute guided tour of the Intervale was beneficial to her as a future teacher.

Then introductory students filled out evaluation sheets for the upper-division students, many of whom are majoring in recreation management and plan to work as environmental interpreters in national parks, nature centers, and other recreation and tourism venues, to let them know how they performed.

Filion, who plans to teach junior high in New York City next year, took matters a step farther, creating her own evaluation sheet so she could learn more about certain aspects of her teaching style. “Sometimes teachers think they’re teaching something, but it gets interpreted differently by their students,” she says. “The feedback is very helpful. The course is incredibly beneficial for both the students teaching the course and those who are taking it.”

Ali says putting students in live teaching situations is the best preparation possible for future instructors. “It’s very valuable because it puts them under pressure to perform, so they end up trying to do a better job. If you want respect as a teacher, you have to know what you’re talking about. The main value I see is that undergraduate teachers feel empowered by it.”

Putting a face on sustainability
Many of the concepts Hudspeth wants his students to convey to first-year students are related to the idea of sustainability. He defines this as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Because it crosses intellectual boundaries, encompassing economics and philosophy as well as environmental ideas, Hudspeth says that “sustainability is fundamentally and inevitably a vague concept.” Grasping it is easier when students see examples of it at working landscapes like the Intervale.

For their 90-minute guided walks, Hudspeth’s students developed themes related to sustainability and showed Ali’s students some examples of sustainability initiatives at the Intervale. The most obvious were the 12 working farms that provide 500,000 pounds of fresh produce to the community (more than six percent of Burlington’s total produce consumption) and 50,000 pounds of food to local social service agencies. But the tour also included a project working with at-risk youth, a demonstration project transforming animal manure into fuel and food using a methane digester, and a community garden among others.

“All of a sudden sustainability isn’t an amorphous concept. You can see it and smell it. It becomes very real, very concrete. It comes alive,” Hudspeth says.