Working with guidance from faculty, including Associate Head of School Seth Low, Steve Bailey of the Science Department, Jess Lyon, Chair of the World Languages Department, and Ed Small, the Anne S. and Ogden D. Miller Senior Master, the students sketched out a plan for their task on a whiteboard. Then they set to work, piecing the wood together and securing each section with metal screws before adding a plastic liner and filling the new frames with nutrient-rich soil, which they created by mixing dirt with compost taken from the school’s compostable waste pile. By lunchtime, the students had planting neat rows of herbs and vegetables that soon will be incorporated into school meals by the dining hall staff.
The morning exercise was one of several hands-on activities designed to engage students in the natural world on April 15 as part of Sustainability Day, an early Earth Day celebration on campus organized by the school’s Energy, Outdoors and Sustainability (EOS) Task Force and led by Director of Outdoor Programs Becca Leclerc. In lieu of regular classroom learning, students were provided with a full day of opportunities to spend time outdoors and “learn to love and care for our planet,” said Emily Gum, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning.
“Extremely important learning happens outside of the classroom,” Gum said, citing the School Walk and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in February as further examples of how the school comes together as a community to learn in non-traditional ways.
School Walk and Sustainability Day, in particular, emphasize the school’s year-round commitment to, as Head of School Peter Becker has said, “living out more fully Frederick Gunn’s pioneering understanding of the role of outdoor education as a central part of a holistic learning environment.”
In April 2018, the school’s Sustainability Day incorporated a tabletop water filtration exercise and field trips that took students to local farms and nature preserves as well as off-campus recycling facilities and a cogeneration plant. This year, students were divided by grade level to learn about the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the waste cycle and, in the case of the senior class, giving back to the community through service.
“To be sustainable is to live in the natural cycles of the earth,” Leclerc said. “What we hope for our seniors as they leave here is that they approach their lifestyle and life use in a sustainable way. Where we can really draw their attention is the conservation of resources and the reuse of things so they are better able to be stewards of the world and live sustainably outside of the school.”
During the course of the day, freshmen toured The Gunnery’s water and wastewater treatment systems and conducted a macroinvertebrate study that involved wading into the Shepaug River with nets to collect and sort samples that were sent to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The results will help the state to gauge water quality in the river. Sophomores were divided into teams to learn about the carbon cycle by constructing community garden beds from scratch. They collected soil samples from various parts of campus for comparison, learning that “healthy soil looks like chocolate cake,” Leclerc said. Sophomores also were challenged in a scavenger hunt designed by science teacher Jeff Trundy to identify and locate species of trees that are indigenous to campus.
Meanwhile, juniors were challenged to learn about the conventional waste cycle by collecting recyclable materials and constructing castles using what they had found, and seniors worked together in the dining hall to prepare food for three meals that were later enjoyed by the school community. “For the seniors the focus was more on the cycle of their time here,” Leclerc explained. “This was an opportunity for them to come together and serve and nourish their peers and learn about the way the kitchen works here.”
Wearing special t-shirts designed by Jean Fang ’19, featuring forks and spoons on the front and the words “What’s Cooking?” on the back, the seniors worked in shifts to clean and set the dining hall tables, season chicken, roll pork taquitos, scoop meatballs, bake chocolate chip cookies and pipe pastry cream into chocolate eclairs. It was an opportunity for them to lend a hand, literally, to those who nourish our students and faculty every day.
“Fred Gunn believed in the power of the outdoors. If he lived in 2019, he would be all about sustainability,” Low told students at a School Meeting, describing Sustainability Day as a great day for students. “Energy, resources and sustainability are important topics for us, and the world, and we engage with them in different ways and learn in ways not typical of the confines of your classes.”