Students Kindle Connections to Nature, the Environment, and Culture

In settings as varied as museums, an ExCollege classroom, and a greenhouse, students are stepping up to meet the future with 'active hope' 

As the world reckons with climate change, optimistic solutions have never been more important. Tufts students are responding with creative projects that focus on strengthening connections between people and nature.

From an Experimental College class to museum exhibit proposals and a greenhouse with a global perspective, their ideas reflect what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls active hope, the “practical hope of rolling up your sleeves and getting to it. Intentions are fine, but the meaning lies in the doing.”

Here, two individual students and a duo working together describe their efforts to live sustainably on a fragile planet—and help others learn to do the same. 

Lauryn Weigold Tufts Museum Studies

Lauryn Weigold, a master’s degree candidate in Tufts’ Museum Studies program, proposed exhibition and teaching projects that encourage children to notice and experience nature. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Lauryn Weigold, AG24
Major: Museum Education Program, Museum Studies   

Flowers that inspired a celebrated New England poet, nature that enlivens illustrated children’s books, and native plants that feed “lepidoptera friends” all have been spun into creative exhibition designs by Lauryn Weigold. 

Weigold, a master’s degree candidate in Tufts’ Museum Studies program, came up with three proposals for exhibition and teaching projects over the academic year, each for a different class assignment and all three, designed to encourage children to notice and experience nature.

“My push for climate solutions and my own effort to try to be more sustainable came out of my own feelings of being connected to nature,” said Weigold. “If you feel connected to your local plants, then you're able to take that knowledge and expand it into a global understanding.”

In one project, Weigold translated a Junior Girl Scout badge about flowers into an idea for the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. Dickinson was an avid gardener; her poems and letters mention flowers that include roses, lilacs, peonies, daisies, poppies, nasturtiums, and zinnias. For one badge requirement, Weigold proposed that scouts sit quietly in the Homestead garden and closely observe a flower of their choosing for 10 minutes, then spend another 10 minutes composing a flower-inspired poem.

Weigold also brought her environmental concerns and “deep and abiding love for picture books” to another Amherst cultural institution, the Eric Carle Museum, named for the celebrated illustrator.

For the museum, which collects, preserves, and presents picture books and picture-book illustrations, she proposed an exhibition of artwork that depicts how nature, most notably plants, can be found in rural, suburban, and urban communities. She captured that idea with books by Ekua Holmes, Jason Chin, and Chris Allsburg. 

“I have really strong opinions about a divide that we have between nature as trees and cities as concrete jungles” devoid of nature, she said. “It was my way of showing that nature is everywhere; connections are possible wherever you live.”

And in a third project, she focused on the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, where she looked at plants thriving in a cosmopolitan meadow that is part of the 281-acre preserve. Her idea: a pre-field trip lesson plan and slideshow for middle-schoolers that looked closely at keystone plantslike goldenrod, milkweed, and asters “that are a food source for the most insects and butterflies and moths and all of those lepidoptera friends.” 

Weigold, who earned a master’s in children's literature from Simmons University followed by master’s of education from Teachers College, Columbia University, said the Museum Studies program has given her new and exciting ways to reach young audiences.“Museums are exactly the place where my ideas and approach to working with students across all grade levels can flourish,” she said.  

At Tufts, her creative expression has indeed found free rein and fed the optimism she intentionally cultivates. “I'm relentless in the pursuit of optimism; it's the way I get through the day,” she said. “I follow Mary Oliver's instructions for living a life: ‘Pay attention. / Be astonished. /Tell about it.’ That's the work.”

Laura Harvey Tufts

Laura Harvey, A24 took inspiration for an Experimental College course from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer's essays on rethinking our connections and responsibilities to the Earth, provided a springboard for conversations and hands-on learning, including basketmaking with cattails. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Laura Harvey, A24
Majors: Colonial history and the environment 
(independent Studies) and Studio Art

In Braiding Sweetgrass, the best-selling collection of essays by Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Laura Harvey, A24, found a philosophy for how she wanted to live her life. “That book changed my outlook,” said Harvey. “I wanted to talk about it with other people and also build a community where we could go through that experience together.” 

Harvey found that community by teaching a course in the Experimental College this spring that used Braiding Sweetgrass as a springboard for wide-ranging conversations. Kimmerer’s essays helped students “to interrogate their own upbringing and cultural context, to question why they’ve come to their views, and then build an ethical framework that they can move forward with,” Harvey said. “I believe that the only way we solve the environmental crisis is for each of us to develop our own more conscious, intentional environmental ethics. That cultural change has to happen in all of us.”

The Experimental College’s Peer Teachers program, she said, offered an exciting opportunity to create a “focused space” to unpack Braiding Sweetgrass ideas, as it also allowed her “the freedom and creativity to test out hands-on learning in the classroom,” she said. “It was one of the most liberating introductions to being an educator I could imagine.”

Her creativity found expression in nature-centered activities that included paper making with recycled paper and plants, and basket weaving using dried cattails. Individual projects spanned volunteering with environmental justice organizations and creative endeavors. One student explored how to source wood from trees native to the region for carving bowls and spoons; another how to incorporate natural dyes into a quilt. 

Guest speakers, including a local food foraging expert Russ Cohen and Vernon Miller, director of the Indigenous Center at Tufts, added their perspectives to the class.

 “It was heartwarming to experience how people connected to environmentalism were so excited to talk with us. There has been so much generosity and goodwill; it was incredible,” Harvey said. “That’s a lesson for students too. If you want to be in this world, and make it better, you’ve got to lead with the heart.”

Tufts engineering students Wan and Harrington with greenhouse

A new greenhouse, spearheaded by engineering students, "allows us to reflect on the similarities in what we all need in life--food, water, power, self-sustainability,” says Natasha Wan, E25, project lead with Max Harrington, E25. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Max Harrington, E25 and Natasha Wan, E25
Majors: Biomedical engineering

Inspired by their Engineers Without Borders experience, Tufts undergraduate engineers have big plans for a solar-powered greenhouse that not only brings a distinctive world perspective to growing vegetables on campus, but also deepens connections to both the Tufts community and its partner community in Malawi.

“We are excited by this opportunity that allows us to reflect on the similarities in what we all need in life--food, water, power, self-sustainability,” said Natasha Wan, E25, project lead with Max Harrington, E25. “These overlapping missions give meaning, care, and heart to a local greenhouse project.”

In a show of strong team spirit, engineering students made the greenhouse on the Medford/Somerville campus in just a matter of weeks this spring.

The greenhouse will support foods central to the village of Solomoni, Malawi (and staples of well-remembered Malawian meals), including cabbage, tomatoes, beans, and kale. The plants will be labeled in Chichewa, a language spoken by more than half the people of Malawi. 

Constructed of polycarbonate panels from a kit, the 12 foot by 7 foot greenhouse also supports sustainable practices. It relies on solar energy to power lights and a programmed water system. Heating and cooling systems are expected to be worked out next year. A rain catch basin also conserves water. 

And located on the lower campus next to an existing community garden, the greenhouse has potential for outreach and partnerships. The design accommodates three beds for the Tufts Garden club, Malawian crops, and local elementary schools. There’s also a “half-height table” for starting seeds that is designed to support future programming with local schoolchildren. 

“We want to show them this is how your own little garden in your backyard could work,” Harrington said. 

The greenhouse is an idea with roots in the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders and its work in Malawi last summer completing a solar-powered water pump connected to a gravity-fed water delivery system. The system now provides running water to primary and secondary schools, eliminating the need for schoolchildren to hand pump and carry water to school from the nearest borehole. 

But the project also built a strong, and indelible, connection to the Malawian community. “Anytime we met with someone in the community, we ate with them,” said Harrington. “Eating together was such a great introduction into that community. We wanted to find a way to bring that memory back with us.” 

Wan, project lead for the Tufts Malawi Chapter of Engineers without Borders, said this summer students will monitor and evaluate the water system, and they’re looking forward to building other ways to help the community be self-sustaining economically, such as by building a composting system that creates fertilizer that can be sold, or a brick or a water system that allows for improved irrigation.

It is with similar long-range vision that Wan and Harrington are optimistic about the future of the greenhouse – a structure that, in principle and aspiration, exceeds the sum of parts. 

“We see this project as a great way to show how Tufts engineers are taking the initiative to learn outside the classroom, to take the lead, to collaborate, and to bring their ideas into the community,” said Wan. “If more incoming students see what we have accomplished, they won’t hesitate to dive into engineering.” 

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