Ben Gillock, environmental systems and societies teacher at UWC-USA, is crouched next to a student, spreading dry grass clippings around cabbage seedlings in the large garden that makes up part of the new UWC-USA Agroecology Research Center (ARC).
“We need to do more than just sit in a classroom,” Ben says, his hands covered in mulch. “If our aim is to prepare young people to address global challenges—why not give them a real, concrete, immediate challenge to work on?”
“Our students eat three meals a day, but most know very little about the process of growing food,” he continues. “Growing food applies the concepts of biology, physics, and chemistry. It raises interesting and difficult questions about ecology, economics, and sustainability. It also helps students develop a healthy respect for the labor and skill that goes into raising the food that they eat.”
ARC is located on 20 acres of riparian land near Sebastian Canyon that was purchased by the school last year. Last spring, Ben and a team of 30 students transformed an old hay barn into an outdoor classroom, planted the garden, and established a flock of chickens and ducks in an old stable. In August, students will erect a commercial-grade high tunnel (a type of greenhouse) that will be used to grow produce throughout the winter months.
ARC aims to achieve three goals:
Train students and community members in the skills and techniques needed to practice sustainable agriculture in an arid environment.
Provide a place for practical, hands-on work where students can learn new skills and discover meaningful applications of their classroom learning in math, economics, and the sciences.
Stimulate innovation by challenging students to think about new and different ways to approach problems such as pest management, habitat conservation, and waste management.
“People all over the world are trying to figure out how to increase crop productivity even as water resources become scarce,” Ben says. “The larger question is how to derive value from the land while still supporting ecological functions. We want to see ARC function as a laboratory where students can explore many different techniques in applied sustainability.”
ARC’s potential—and its clear alignment with the UWC mission—led UWC-USA’s Board of Trustees to incorporate it in the Davis Challenge for Scholars and Programs, which launched in February. Philanthropist Shelby M.C. Davis has pledged to give UWC-USA $1 million to create scholarships for students from areas of conflict if the school can raise $1 million in new and increased gifts. Donors can specify that their gift be directed to one of four areas of need, including the ARC. School leaders hope to raise $50,000 to support the next phase of the ARC’s design.
“Given the centrality of food production to issues of peace and sustainable development, it seems fitting that we develop educational programming that will help our students gain a deeper understanding of the skills, science, and economics of food production,” says Acting President Tom Oden.
ARC’s impact will be both global and local. In addition to training young global leaders in sustainable agriculture, UWC-USA is partnering with schools in Las Vegas to bring local students to the farm. There also are plans for a workshop series for the broader community.
“Ultimately, the ARC is all about self-efficacy,” Ben says. “UWC-USA students can become overwhelmed with the scale of the challenges they learn about, and may wonder whether they can really have an impact. But when you have gained the skill and grit it takes to raise a crop in the punishing conditions of Northern New Mexico, it feels like you can achieve anything.”