By Julia Elliot
The natural world is a part of Hotchkiss as much as Hotchkiss is a part of the natural world. The School’s exceptional physical features include the 200-acre Beeslick Brook Woods, consisting of white pine, hemlock, mixed hardwoods, several hemlock groves, and wetlands; 287 acres of farmland and fields on Fairfield Farm; and shorefront on 348-acre Lake Wononscopomuc, the deepest natural lake in Connecticut.
Hotchkiss has long sought to incorporate environmental stewardship into every aspect of School life and to be a leader in sustainability among independent secondary schools. As an institution, over the last 10 years the School has reduced its carbon footprint by 40 percent even as it has added students, buildings, and other infrastructure.
“Living and working in a community that is producing renewable energy, growing food, building soil, and sequestering carbon inevitably supports a student and faculty mindset and spirit that are regenerative, creative, and entrepreneurial,” says Josh Hahn, director of strategic initiatives and assistant head of school.
As a learning community, the School’s focus on the environment has led to ever-expanding academic and co-curricular offerings, including sustainability initiatives that benefit the region.
“We know there are two surefire ways to engage students in environmental issues: first, by facilitating positive direct experiences with the natural world; and second, by supporting students in grappling with meaningful problems that influence their daily lives,” says Hahn. “With our natural resources and environmentally sensitive and innovative infrastructure, the Hotchkiss campus is set up beautifully to support this aspect of our mission.”
“The presence of three distinct ecosystems on our campus as sources of study is remarkable,” says Mario Williams ’12, instructor in environmental science. “We have a tremendous opportunity, and an equal obligation, to care for them.”
Onboarding green energy solutions is among the most significant ways the School has cut emissions. In 2012, the School built a green biomass central heating facility that runs on locally and sustainably sourced wood chips and produces nearly all of the School’s heat and hot water.
Two solar arrays on campus power the Fairfield Farm and provide one-third of the electricity at the Mars Athletic Center (MAC). Excess power is sold back to the grid, offsetting the costs of energy that must be purchased during peak periods. Thanks to participation in the Cleaner Connecticut Power Grid, 35 percent of our electricity comes from wind.
Other important sustainability initiatives include increasing recycling and reducing solid waste on campus, LED-retrofitting most indoor and outdoor lighting, and composting. All new buildings are required to meet stringent environmental standards. The Esther Eastman Music Center and renovated Monahan Hall, Flinn, Edelman, and Redlich dormitories are all LEED-certified. While the efficiency, economic, and environmental benefits driven by these enhancements are valuable on their own, providing students with access to green infrastructure through their academic coursework adds a significant dimension to their education.
“It is important that as an institution, we model what students are learning in the classroom. We teach about important environmental issues like climate change, and if we don’t demonstrate that we are at least grappling in real ways with these issues, it creates a disconnect that does a disservice to our academic program,” says Hahn.
The School’s recent decision to move away from the AP curriculum in Environmental Science made room for faculty to develop a series of new electives that take advantage of Hotchkiss’s natural physical spaces as well as the infrastructure the School has built.
“The AP curriculum has great strengths, but because it is a one-size-fits-all national curriculum, it was difficult to go as deep into the ecosystems of Hotchkiss as we wanted to,” says Chris Oostenink P’17,’20, instructor in environmental science. “Now we have a whole group of deeply interesting classes that allow us to dive into the lake, the forest, the farm, and their individual dimensions.”
Williams adds, “The School’s commitments to develop our built infrastructure, like the Biomass Heat Facility and Fairfield Farm, ensure that students have places to explore theoretical ideas and concepts in very tangible ways.”
At any given time, between 50 and 90 students are engaged in science courses that include Conservation Biology, Climate and Global Change, Agroecology, Limnology, and Forest Ecology. In the humanities, students can take Environmental Economics or, for the first time, Sustainable Food Systems. The significance of these course offerings lies in the fact that they are interdisciplinary, as environmental issues are themselves. This broad array of classes pushes students to transfer their mastery of content from one discipline to another. Students can also participate in clubs, such as Students for Environmental Action (SEA), or the Fairfield Farm Ecosystem and Adventure Team (FFEAT) co-curricular.
Bridget Lawrence-Meigs recently joined Hotchkiss as the new farm manager, and she appreciates that the School’s commitment to addressing climate change includes giving students opportunities to be part of the solution. “Hotchkiss is inviting students to think about the fact that we can’t compartmentalize environmental problems any more. They are intertwined with so many other issues,” Lawrence-Meigs says. “But we are not just talking about climate change—we are thinking about how we can do something about it.”
“Teenagers hate hypocrisy. If we are serious about teaching our students about climate change, then we have to demonstrate an institutional commitment as well. Otherwise, we undermine the educational experience,” adds Hahn.
Hotchkiss is updating the School’s greenhouse gas inventory in service of creating an aggressive new carbon reduction strategy. The next phase requires reducing electricity use, vehicle use, and air travel, among other initiatives. “We have picked much of the low-hanging fruit, so the next step will be more difficult,” acknowledges Hahn. “But our students are leaders, and these are the issues they are going to be grappling with in the future.”