Photos by Maria Stenzel 
Text by Weston Dripps, Rebecca Hewitt, Maida Ives, Edward Melillo, Lucia Monge, Lillian Pentecost and Li Zhang

Achieving sustainability may be the defining idea of our era. Humanity faces a series of complex, interconnected sustainability challenges, including climate change, racial and socioeconomic inequities, resource depletion and degradation, biodiversity loss and waste. At Amherst, preparing students to tackle sustainability challenges—and find viable solutions—is becoming an increasingly important component of the curriculum. No wonder: the need for change makers, systems leaders, and sustainable solutions has never been so great. 

These days, faculty are finding many creative ways to integrate sustainability into their courses by collaborating with the Office of Sustainability, Book & Plow Farm and the Mead Art Museum. Here, photographer Maria Stenzel documents a half dozen such course sessions, with accompanying text from faculty and staff. Read on to find inspiration that sustains. — Weston Dripps, director of the Office of Sustainability

Class: “Public Art and Collaborative Practices” (ARHA-246)

Text by Lucia Monge, assistant professor of art

Art students, one on a ladder, begin painting a mural on a wall.

The grid takes shape: This is a studio art course with no past experience required. It focuses not on what one can do on their own, but on the power of collaboration—and it invites students to make artworks for space and discussion. Our first project involved painting a mural in the new Office of Sustainability. We read about murals and we visited murals, and learned about the Office of Sustainability’s goals by talking with its staff and students. We had a lot of information—but only one wall. We started by drawing a grid to enlarge the final design and match it to the scale of the wall.

Four art students paint sections of the mural on a wall.

The painting begins: After many individual and small group designs, the 17 students in the class collaborated to compose a single image in response to what they had learned. Students didn’t hold ownership over delineated areas of the wall. Instead, they would initiate and continue different parts of the mural, complementing each other’s work.

Parts of the collage showing plant and wildflife.

“Sunlit, Starlit, Lifelit” becomes the mural’s title: Flowing out of a large sun are native plants and animals, microscopic bacteria and fungi; constellations of stars, water, and soil; local landscape features and global scale concerns; people caring for the environment and envisioning the future. As Clara Danhof ’25 commented: “The figures in this piece, be they plant or animal, human or non-human, all flourish beneath the same sun, beneath the same stars. They share the same life.”

The class examines the mural in progress.

Many conversations unfold: Even though we had decided on an image before we began, many decisions had to be discussed and critiqued along the way. The resulting mural benefited from these ongoing conversations. Collaboration was not always easy for us. It required putting aside competition with each other, letting go of individual control over the outcome, and trusting a sometimes uncertain and nonlinear process.

The art class members pose in front of the mural-in-progress.

Community builds: As we were painting a mural about human visionaries, microscopic heroes, returning loons and other species coexisting together, we were also practicing those principles ourselves by being in community despite our differences. Here, the students pose with the mural mid-process. 

From top left: Vale McCaffrey ’25, Annabelle Chen ’27, Angie Camarena ’25 (below), Zoe Jonas ’25, Eads Fouche ’25, Clara Danhof ’25 (below), Ariana Rodriguez ’24, Xenel Islam ’26, Lucia Monge, assistant professor of art, Mia Griffin ’24, Kendall Greene ’24, Rachel De La Cruz ’26, Ayomide Eniola ’24, Zachary Watson ’24, and Sam Ramirez ’25. Participating students not depicted in the photo: Nahia Pino ’25, Piper Mohring ’25.

Class: “Food and Environment” (ENST-270 and SOCI-270)

Text by Li Zhang, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies, and Maida Ives, manager of farm education and operations at Book & Plow Farm

A group of students on a class field trip at the Book and Plow farm.

We dug deep: This course made fundamental connections between humans and the earth. We examined theories on agriculture, food systems and rural and urban development and how they are entangled with environmental and social transformations worldwide. We also explored how we can cultivate solutions for global health, sustainability and social justice. We kept a class blog, took several field trips and had class potlucks, in which students made dishes from their own family recipes. After students learned about farming systems, farm labor, land ownership, soil fertility and more, we headed to Book & Plow Farm. Recalled Patrick Forbes ’26: “It was fun to see the tour dissolve into buzzing voices of excited classmates digging holes and planting garlic.” —Li Zhang

Garlic planting.

“Book and Plow More like Book and Wow!”: So joked Nicholas De Pinho ’25 in a class blog post. When Professor Zhang’s class visited the farm we discussed how, at the Book & Plow, we choose the 40 crops we grow each year, as well as the impact of the heavy rain on our production. We talked through the benefits of cover crops, our use of integrated pest management, and when we choose to save seeds. Garlic is one of the seeds we have saved since the founding of the farm in 2013. Here, we are planting it in some of the farm’s community garden plots. Students are laying down fertilizer, planting garlic seeds, and covering the plot with mulch. —Maida Ives

Class field trip to the Amherst Survival Center.

We headed to the Amherst Survival Center: Here, we learned more about the social and environmental perspectives of the ’s operations, and its role and connections with the broader community and food system. Both Valentine Dining Hall and Book & Plow donate food to the ASC. Many students expressed that this field trip was an eye-opening chance to learn more about our broader community, food insecurity, and the grounded actions taken to tackle it. Top: Students document their field trip for the class blog. Bottom left: ASC Chef Philip and his crew were preparing food and showed us the chestnuts they picked locally. Bottom right: A fresh load of broccoli is delivered to the ASC’s pantry. —Li Zhang

Place: Book and Plow Farm 

Text by Maida Ives, manager of farm education and operations

Two students stand in a field on the farm in front of a pickup truck.

This spud’s for us: While not every student wants to be a farmer, everyone has to eat, so we are all part of the community food system here in Amherst. If you ever sample kale, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes (and more) at Valentine Dining Hall, chances are you’ve eaten food grown right here on campus. At Book & Plow Farm, we engage students in collaborative and productive farm labor, provide quality produce to the community, and offer people space on campus to connect with food, land and each other. Left to right: Ella Johnson ’26 and Antonia Brillemborg ’25.

Students harvesting crops at the Book & Plow farm.

Top: I drive the tractor while Green Dean Ana Ascencio ’19 teaches Ella Johnson ’26 and Antonia Brillemborg ’25 how to operate the potato digger. Bottom left: Antonia harvests Red Maria potatoes. Bottom right: A handful of Russian Banana Fingerlings.

CSA members selecting vegetables.

Student farmers are key: Through seeding, planting, weeding, trellising, harvesting and washing crops, student farmers have experiences that build creative problem-solving, teamwork, grit, self-awareness and care—and they are integral to the success of Book & Plow. We also host professors and their classes, collaborate with many departments to host events plus nurture ties to local community groups and farms. Students are encouraged to use the farm for club meet-ups, study spots, art projects and just a place to sit and enjoy. Top: Book & Plow operates a 12-Week CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share program in the fall. Left: Professor Leah Schmalzbauer is one of 75 CSA members. Right: Andy De La Torre ’24E  restocks the vegetables. Any food we have in excess gets donated to the Amherst Survival Center.

Class: “Environmental Science”  (ENST-110)

Text by Rebecca Hewitt, assistant professor of environmental studies

Professor Rebecca Hewitt with students at Book & Plow Farm.

Campus as a living lab: This introductory environmental science course explores the interactions between the biotic, physical and social components of the Earth system. In the laboratory portion of the course, we use a “campus as a living lab” approach. Through field and laboratory experiences on or adjacent to campus, we introduce students to standard methods for monitoring the environment and statistical tools for analyzing these datasets. In our fifth field lab of the semester, we visited Book & Plow Farm to explore regenerative agricultural practices. In the classroom before the field trip, students learned about the fundamentals of soil science, human impacts on soil, and healthy soil as an important solution to address anthropogenic climate change.  

Students testing soil at the Book and Plow farm.

It's all in the soil: Students collect soil from the Book and Plow Farm’s upland fields at Mill Lane and lower fields adjacent to the Fort River. 

Students testing soil.

A mixed sample: Students use a soil corer to get a representative sample of the top 10 cm of the soil. They visit four sampling locations within a field and pool the four soil cores in one sample bag. This provides a mixed sample that represents the field’s soil.

The students cointinue the soil testing back in the lab.

Measuring the variables: Back in the lab, students measured several physical and chemical variables: moisture, pH (acidity), the fraction of the soil that is sand, silt, or clay (i.e., texture), and soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). After completing the lab analysis of soils and analyzing the differences between the sampled fields, student interpreted their findings. Then they wrote up a partial lab report discussing the impacts of farming practices on soil quality.

Class: “Finding the Humanity in Nature” (ENST-236)

Text by Ted Melillo, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies

A woman looks at a painting of a map of Massachusetts shaped like a bear.

A visit to the College's Mead Art Museum. Joe Moore (philosophy and environmental studies) and I recently co-taught this new environmental studies course, which introduced 21 students to the emerging field of environmental humanities. It brings together insights and approaches from disciplines as diverse as history, philosophy, religious studies, literature, the arts and more. Here, we are on a field trip to Boundless, which features Native American reflections on the experiences of place and environment. This map by Elizabeth James-Perry restores Indigenous place names to Massachusetts. 

Students present their work to one another in the Mead Art Museum.

Thinking “inside the box”: Practitioners of environmental humanities have been exploring new ways to evaluate and address planetary ecological crises and sustainability issues. In addition to immersing themselves in the field, the students wrote several essays and completed a final assignment, which required them to “think inside the box” by transforming small wooden containers in ways that demonstrated key concepts from the class readings and discussions. Here, Beatrice Agbi ’26 presents her creation to her classmates in the Mead’s Rotherwas Room.

Students examining the boxes that they have created.

Uncontained: Each student offered their final presentations. Bottom left: Beatrice Agbi ’26 showcased her box creation, which addresses issues around animal rights. Bottom right: Nife Joshua ’26 offered her box, which interrogates the high cost of fashion.

Class: “Modern Computing Hardware” (COSC-265)

Text by Lillian Pentecost, assistant professor of computer science

Students in discussion during class.

Hardware that solves hard problems: In this class, we analyze how the goals and priorities of computer hardware have changed over time and explore the motivations and technical challenges of future hardware development. These challenges include making faster, more useful, and more accessible products with longer battery lives and factoring in their environmental footprint. Throughout the semester, students apply this analysis to a series of hands-on projects culminating in a final project that customizes hardware solutions to problems they are excited about. Top: Students brainstorm ideas for their final projects. Bottom left: Prof. Pentecost discusses the final project assignment. Bottom right: Weston Dripps, director of the Office of Sustainability, encourages students to tackle sustainability issues in their work.

Two students working on their sustainability themed final project.

Re-thinking recycling: For their final design project, Charlie Clary ’24 (right) and Micah Elias ’24 (left) sought to incentivize recycling in student living spaces with their “Recycle-Bot.” Their project turns a recycling can into a polling system, making cleaning up cans into an opportunity for fun and community-building in the dorms. They use motion sensing to detect when someone drops a can or bottle into one of three slots, and translate this to a vote for one of three options in an ongoing, interactive poll question. Like this: “What’s your favorite meal at Val?” 1. Chicken Caesar Wrap 2. Miso Salmon 3. Tofu Bowl. 

And so we end our story on how sustainability is taught in the classrooms of Amherst. Or, to cite one Recycle-Bot poll choice, that’s a wrap.