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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Maverick Vermont College

Air Date: Week of

Marlboro College in Southern Vermont is a small liberal arts college with a big reputation in science and ecology. One of the founders of the school's science department was Rovery MacArthur, whose work helped establish the field of conservation biology. We sent reporter Tatiana Schreiber to find out what's different about environmental education at Marlboro.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Marlboro College in southern Vermont is a small liberal arts college with a big reputation in science and ecology circles. More than 70% of science graduates at Marlboro go on to earn PhDs. One of the founders of the school's science department was Rovery MacArthur, whose work helped establish the field of conservation biology. We sent reporter Tatiana Schreiber to find out what's different about environmental education at Marlboro.

SCHREIBER: The buildings on the Marlboro College campus have a worn but comfortable field to them. The campus is an old Vermont hill farm. The white frame farm house and barn serve as classrooms and dorms. Walking toward the science building, there's an angular wood and wire mesh structure that seems to be growing from the building. It's the aviary.

(A door opens, shuts)

WOODS: This stuff, the little bird gets right in here.

(A bird chirps)

WOODS: Here's a Coke glass. Sorry it's kind of dirty in here. But this bird is from China.

(Chirping continues)

SCHREIBER: Kermit Woods, a junior here, studies the behavior of a family of Asian pheasants called galliforms.

WOODS: And she has a little bit of a cold, so we're giving her some yams and some garlic and some spicy tomato-y stuff thanks to the kitchen.

(Chirping continues. Door opens, shuts)

SCHREIBER: Kermit hadn't planned to go to college. He'd loved birds since he was a child and was working at the Bronx Zoo when his boss suggested he consider Marlboro. When he decided to attend, the faculty encouraged him to bring his own birds with him, and helped him fell trees and drag them from the woods to build this oddly graceful, 40-foot-high aviary.

WOODS: These kinds of birds, they eat a lot of really rough roots and things, so they need to eat a lot of grit, small rocks and things to grind up their food. So this is what we call a foraging area. And when we put choice items out like garlic, these are peeled garlic cloves.

(Cloves spill out)

WOODS: I put them over here, and then the Himalayan minals and the cheer pheasants come over and they consume them.

SCHREIBER: There are all kinds of birds in here, strutting around, preening their feathers, and pecking the ground around another bird's tail. Some look like quails or chickens, others like turkeys, and a few iridescent blue and green birds trail long, elaborate peacock trains.

WOODS: Julie, would you mind feeding?

JULIE: Sure.

SCHREIBER: Marlboro's a quirky place. By now, students are used to seeing peacocks fly by their dorm windows.

(Peacocks calls)

SCHREIBER: Despite limited resources, the school recently found money to send Kermit and biology teacher Bob Engel to Malaysia for an international conference on galliforms.

ENGEL: It was full of international people and a good third of them were devoutly interested in field research. The birds themselves are in extreme trouble in almost almost all the species in almost all of their former range.

(A bird calls)

ENGEL: Pretty good, huh?

SCHREIBER: Kermit made quite an impression at the conference because he's reproduced in the aviary an environment where the birds behave very much as they would in nature. He's been invited back to Malaysia once he graduates. He'll help reintroduce the green dragon bird to the wild, a species extinct in the area since the 1950s. Getting a job like this is unusual for an undergraduate, but it's a testament to his experience at Marlboro.

ENGEL: Kermit's mind is extremely fertile, and he challenges existing ideas all the time. But the most important thing that can happen to him at Marlboro College is to learn good, formal, rigorous hypothesis testing and experimentation.

SCHREIBER: Kermit's now on plan, the two-year period of concentration that all Marlboro's 280 students must complete before they graduate. He'll conduct experiments and write a thesis on galliform conservation and ecology that he hopes will become a book. He's already got a title for it: The Resplendent Hen. But as he shifts into the final phase, he is a bit anxious.

WOODS: I don't know if I'm ready yet. I mean, I'm just now, as a junior, I'm just now, I feel prepared to really get serious. I think most of the people who have known me for a number of years will be surprised that I was capable of (laughs) finishing such heady stuff.

SALAS: I think it's pretty impressive to have basically a book of research to just plot down on someone's table and say look, this is what I did, and give them something concrete.

SCHREIBER: Elissa Salis is a senior. Her thesis is due this spring. She's also very stressed.

SALIS: I can never live up to my own standards, but hopefully I can live up to my teachers'.

SCHREIBER: Students here are expected to meet high standards, probably more like those expected of masters students at other schools. All students must defend their thesis before an outside examiner. Elissa's focus is on the effects of pesticides on the immune system.

SALAS: What I wanted to do with my plan was incorporate all the things I find fascinating in life, down to the type of chemical bonds and cellular level all the way up to looking at entire ecosystems in the environment and how things cycle.

SCHREIBER: One of her teachers is John Hayes, a biochemist.

HAYES: This is a perfect thing, actually, for her to be doing, because she aspires to a career in veterinary medicine. And certainly, we really do not know enough about the immune system in these organisms and I know that most vets don't study that very intensively. So I think the work that the student is doing is particularly appropriate for where she's headed in the future.

SCHREIBER: Elissa grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia. She excelled in school. But her family had no money to pay for college. Marlboro accepts students who really want to be here and gives financial aid to 85 or 90% of them. But the work is demanding and students have to be very self-directed. Some 40% drop out before they graduate.

SALIS: Oh, I need you to sign this. Could you, please?

SCHREIBER: Elissa and Professor Angel say for students who succeed at Marlboro, the close mentoring they get is very important. With a student-faculty ratio of 8 to 1, relationships are close. That inspires an enormous amount of devotion to the place among both students and faculty.

RAMSTETTER: If I remain in academics and if I remain teaching, I want to do it at Marlboro College.

SCHREIBER: Jenny Ramstetter's been teaching here nine years. The other faculty members I talked to had each been here more than twenty and claimed they couldn't be pried loose, even though salaries are about 30% lower than at many comparable institutions.

ENGEL: We have huge academic freedom. And as long as we act responsibly, that's all that one ever hears, we're encouraged to teach anything we want to teach. And that is wonderful.

SCHREIBER: Bob Engel has taught classes for just a few students on desert biology and animal ethics. Jenny Ramstetter's taught culture and ecology of the western US, ethno-botany, and conservation biology and policy, all with teachers from other disciplines.

RAMSTEADER: And those kinds of opportunities, I don't think typically exist at a larger university.

SCHREIBER: There are costs, though. Here, teachers give so much to their students they have little time to publish or keep up in their fields. But Jenny Ramstetter and Bob Engel both say they've learned a huge amount from their students, who are usually reading the latest literature.

(Bird chirps)

ENGEL: Because I'm a birder myself, I know ring-necked pheasant from this country. But I knew nothing about the pheasant family and the diversity within it until I met Kermit.

SCHREIBER: When Kermit Woods graduates, the aviary will probably come down unless another student happens to have the same passion. But Kermit hopes to rebuild a similar one for the Bronx Zoo. Meanwhile, Marlboro College suffers from what they've come to call "bird creep." Birds are everywhere.

WOODS: That's a Tibetan dragon bird up there...

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Marlboro, Vermont.

WOODS: And they're quite different than the Nepali ones.

SCHREIBER: How are they different?

WOODS: They're quite a bit taller, and each feather on their neck is an actual eye, like on the train of the familiar peacock. Also, they can't scream. It's a very different sounding call. And they take five years to mature, versus three years. And the male is...

(Music up and under)

GERAK: We live in a throwaway society, and it really makes me sick.



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