At a time when higher education appears to be in flux, with smaller colleges beset by economies of scale and enrollment challenges, Unity College, known as America’s Environmental College, is poised to continue a pattern of unprecedented growth.
As summer begins at Unity, college officials reveal that there are 231 deposited first year students, an increase of 20% over last year’s class, according to Joe Saltalamachia ’95, Unity College’s Director of Admissions.
This growth improves opportunities for study, research, and experiential learning both on the campus and far beyond. Students arrive from across the United States and other countries discover an environmental college nestled in central Maine’s verdant farm country. They soon discover that Unity College is in the center of all that sustainability science represents because the campus is in the middle of where they want to be to have an academically knowledge-based, yet hands-on experiential college experience. Unity College and location places them at the heart of Maine’s forests, oceans and backwoods nature for an ecological paradise.
Beyond its prime ecological location, why is Unity College apparently exempt from the market forces that are forcing deep staff and program cuts at some higher education institutions thereby ensuring a darker future for some of its competitors? The answer appears to be threefold: 1. Unity has a comfortable, yet technology laden, campus that is ideally located to support real-world, hands-on environmental studies, 2. Professors known to be experts in their field and 3. The College’s focus on Sustainability Science.
Given the growing popularity of environmental and “green” issues in higher education a number of smaller, environmentally oriented colleges are claiming to be focused on sustainability. However, not all claims are equal. Only Unity College offers Sustainability Science – not as a part of the curriculum but as the focus of the College’s educational degree programs.
“Sustainability is only a small portion of what we do at Unity College,” noted Saltalamachia. “Sustainability Science incorporates sustainability (involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources), climate change study, environmental science and energy efficiency, wildlife biology, conservation and preservation, green entrepreneurship, economics, and social science -- all within the context of experiential learning relating to key environmental factors.”
Saltalamachia says that collaborative, experiential education works because problems are solved in a transdisciplinary way, thereby ensuring a “sustainable” solution.
“Without this framework in place, we would be teaching students in an interdisciplinary or single dimension, and the solutions they devise might not stand the test of time,” noted Saltalamachia. Complex, real-world problems require sophisticated solutions. When it comes to sustainability, there is no substitute for Sustainability Science taught in this manner, and with this degree of focus. Other colleges claiming to have a program in sustainability only offer it as a part of their degree programs, and not in the comprehensive and experiential manner that is found at Unity College.
The class of 2018 is likely to be the largest and most geographically diverse in Unity College history. Members of this class will travel the world, pursue an undergraduate educational experience that is truly world class, and benefit from studies at a leading-edge environmental college. They will also witness the College’s ongoing transformation from their first day on campus.
So, what will the college that built TerraHaus – the country’s first college or university residence hall built to the Passive house standard, the most energy efficient standard in the world – do now? The College is currently constructing an approximately 18,000 square foot suite style residence hall for upperclassmen that is expected to meet LEED Silver standards. The hall will house 70 students and will be completed in August of 2014.
Much more is in the planning, including the single most transformative building in Unity College history. Plans and fundraising have begun for a new Sustainability Science and Conference Center, which will establish the College as an international beacon of Sustainability Science education. It is a vision that will most likely come to fruition before the class of 2018 graduates. Aside from serving as an architectural focal point on campus, the center will provide leading-edge teaching, meeting, and research facilities. This center will also attract scholars from across the globe to collaborate and problem solve with Unity College faculty and students.
Although known as a Maine college focused on teaching and creating hands-on learning opportunities for Sustainability Science students, in recent years, Unity College has marshalled its many strengths into a teaching and learning approach that promises to transform higher education. As the first college in the United States to adopt Sustainability Science, Unity College placed itself – and its students – at the vanguard of 21st century transdisciplinary, experiential environmental problem solving.
How does Sustainability Science work? To put it succinctly, Sustainability Science breaks down silos between the disciplines, encourages professors to think creatively and work collaboratively, and helps students develop the kind of real-world skills that are needed to solve the most pressing environmental problems of the 21st century.
Educating to Solve 21st Century Environmental Problems
Unity College President Stephen Mulkey is confident that his institution is blazing a new path for higher education.
“We are training students to gain the skills that are relevant not just for their first job after graduation, but for their fifth,” Mulkey said. “Our approach represents real change in higher education, addressing education in an expansive, comprehensive way that is turning the outdated lecture models that still plague higher education upside down.” This educational approach combined with a focus on Sustainability Science is a very powerful, winning combination.
At Unity College, the successful results of the institution’s combined strengths -- an ecological location, new educational approach, and a focus on all aspects of Sustainability Science -- speak for themselves.
The proof is in the enthusiastic, loyal support of the students.
Cody Lounder ’14, a Conservation Law Enforcement major from Brunswick, Maine, was hired by the Maine Warden Service within weeks of commencement. Another student, Michael Rossi ’17 of Methuen, Massachusetts, is looking forward to beginning his second year in August. Though he anticipated that Unity would provide him with the varied, hands-on experiences he wanted, even he was surprised by the range of opportunities available. An Environmental Policy major with an eye on attending law school, during the spring semester Rossi testified before the Transportation Committee of the Maine State Legislature, in reference to a bill entitled LD 1831, An Act to Allow Signs for Areas of Local, Regional and Statewide Interest on the Interstate System. Rossi eloquently argued against passage of the bill. It was revised along the lines of his argument.
The experience was just one highlight of Rossi’s first year at Unity College.
“I urge my friends to apply to Unity College,” Rossi said. “This is a college with opportunities at every turn. I chose to study here because it is an institution that is focused on solving environmental problems and creating leaders who protect the natural world. That includes mitigating global climate change.”
The demands of the higher education world are constantly shifting and changing. Unity College has met the demands of this rapidly changing world head-on through its embrace of Sustainability Science. This emphasis on sustainability science is significantly helpful both in student recruitment and preparing for real-world success. The College benefits from a combination of Maine’s ecological location, its educational approach, the campus and student culture, plus a focus on Sustainability Science that works to boost enrollment.
Popularity of “Green” Issues and Threat of Global Climate Change Cause Campus Expansion and Renewal
Key elements that are helping Unity College to differentiate itself in a crowded higher education marketplace include: a multifaceted and comprehensive approach to increasing capacity; infrastructure improvements; and a hard-working, dedicated faculty and staff who bring distinction to the College. Current and prospective students praise the College’s environmental mission and focus on experiential learning tied to real world relevancy.
In 2013, Unity College was able to increase its incoming class by 16 percent over 2012. Seventy percent of the entire study body chose to live on campus. Because of this, during the 2013 fall semester the College began exploring future options for student housing. “A campus at residential capacity is an indication of student satisfaction and strength of Unity’s social community,” says Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, Executive Vice President and Liason to the Board of Trustees.
Students began the 2013-14 academic year on a campus that well serves both academic and community needs. Those who set foot on campus for the 2014-15 academic year will notice move improvements. In the past year, the single greatest addition of faculty and support staff has taken place. This ensures that the College reach its key mid and long-term goals. One of the most important goals is to ascend to a position of national recognition and prominence in service to Unity’s strong environmental mission.
Last year, thirty facility improvement projects were completed over the summer alone, including the renovation of three science laboratories. This summer’s campus improvements promise to keep this pace. Khoury says that other projects to enhance the campus are anticipated in the coming years.
Lastly, Khoury says that Unity College’s first rate faculty and staff, who are creating dynamic research and experiential learning opportunities for students, is central to its aspirations, achievements and success. The College’s improving national visibility, the hard work of admissions professionals, and accolades it has received such as being named to the 2013-14 Colleges of Distinction Guide, are factors that explain Unity’s success.
Major Donations Supporting Unity College’s Role as A Sustainability Science Leader
In December of 2013, Unity College received a transformative gift that will enhance teaching, research, experiential learning and programs in sustainable agriculture. Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson of Brooks, Maine, have gifted Half Moon Gardens of Thorndike, a multifaceted greenhouse operation. The property, along with five years of financial support, is valued at over $1.2 million. This property will support hands-on learning in agriculture, provide ample research opportunities, help students to develop farm management skills, and pursue “green” entrepreneurial projects.
Another world-class learning opportunity developed. Unity College entered into a relationship that brings research and education projects to Allen Island, the family retreat of famed painter Andrew Wyeth.
During the spring and summer of 2014, the 450 acre private island located four miles off the coast of Port Clyde, Maine, served as a focus for three academic projects funded by the Up East Foundation. The projects were selected from a slate of proposals submitted by several of the academic centers of study at Unity College.
Dr. Michael Evans, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, says that additional proposals were presented to the Up East Foundation at the end of the 2013-14 academic year in May.
The three projects were framed by Unity College’s first-in-the-nation sustainability science focus for teaching and learning, a collaborative approach that works across academic disciplines to address the most complex, pressing environmental problems of the 21st century, including the mitigation of global climate change.
One of the three projects, a biodiversity baseline survey is being conducted by four Unity College scientists from the Center for Biodiversity, and has the potential to develop valuable data over time on the effects of global climate change on the Maine coast. Such data may eventually save the lobster industry -- and other Maine coastal fisheries -- by helping to develop effective strategies to mitigate the ravages of global climate change.
Dr. Amy Arnett, Professor of Ecology and Director of the Center for Biodiversity, is studying beetles and ants on the island. Amanda Baker, an Instructor of Biology, will study the pollination activities of bees. Dr. David Potter, a Professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, is studying plankton, butterflies and birds. Dr. Emma Perry, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, is studying tardigrades, which are tiny organisms that can thrive in some of the most hostile conditions on earth, from the deepest Maine lakes to the vacuum of outer space.
“We’re going to put it all together,” said Arnett of the projects. “There is no information on Allen Island in the (scientific) literature or even with the citizen science databases.” She says that the information gathered will contribute to broader research projects in the future.
The second project funded by the foundation has brought two other scientists from the Center for Biodiversity to the Island. Dr. Aimee Phillippi, Associate Professor of Biology and Dr. Pamela MacRae, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Fisheries Management, are studying rockweed habitat for juvenile lobsters and fish.
The third project is intended to spark transdiciplinary (collaborative) environmental problem solving across the disciplines.
During the summer, faculty members who have committed to teaching in the general education program at Unity College, which includes keystone classes, distribution requirements, community-based learning, and environmental studies, will travel to the island to participate in a transdisciplinary problem solving education workshop. The keystone classes are Unity Experience, an entry level orientation course for new Unity College students, Environmental Issues and Insights, and Environmental Scenarios and Solutions.
“Because of the nature of these classes, the work done there will affect the experience of every student at Unity College,” said Dr. Sarah Cunningham, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education.
Participants will share ideas about ways to encourage Unity College students to think deeply about sustainability, and define their roles as environmental citizens, says Cunningham.
They will also use part of their time to gather information for future reference.
“Faculty will explore the island to identify areas where student and faculty research projects may be appropriate in the future,” explained Dr. Stephanie Wade, Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of Writing.