Leaning Into Problems

When asked to describe the Burlington City & Lake Semester program, many words and phrases rise to the top–and they are all true. The program is place-based, experiential, inquiry-based collaborative, student-centered, etc. But it is also something else, something that makes it remarkably challenging to facilitate, but at the same time richly meaningful. At the end of the day, BCL is focused on problems–real-world dilemmas that don’t have easy solutions. 

The real world, of course, is filled to the brim with these kinds of dilemmas, and BCL students are constantly invited to face them head on. We don’t shy away from issues without easy answers, nor from issues that have many potential answers but lack any consensus. Teaching backwards from complex problems can be vexing. After all, it isn’t easy to frame issues without clear solution-sets–let alone assess a form of critical thinking that grapples with ideas, but doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The experience is similarly formidable for students, but it is also compelling. 

BCL’s problem-based curriculum takes many different forms. As students explore local city systems, they unearth conflicting values, negative externalities, political constraints, and limitations of human behavior. In other words, they encounter the world, in all its messy complexity. 

Students learn how interconnected Burlington’s biomass energy system is with the woodchips (and the trees) that keep the lights on.
This one wood chip is connected to efficiency initiatives, land-use regulations, rail-line transportation policy, and the entire regional grid. 
One class, one bucket.
At Burlington’s Wastewater Plant, Jim Fitzpatrick describes how human choices–good and bad–influence the lake, as well as human health. 

BCL can be challenging in the way that I’m not really used to this type of school, but it’s a good change. The school I’m used to is a teacher standing in the front of class giving you a lesson doing the homework and taking a test on what you learned, and feeling like I’m really not being involved at all and not remembering what I took on a quiz a year later because it’s not really something I was actually interested in. This is different.

  • Dadir

I think learning about real-world problems as a young person is important because once you are an adult you will be expected to have informed opinions on many of the same or similar problems. Having the background knowledge to form your views and being able to have civil discussions is a valuable skill for the future.

  • Isabelle

We should learn about these complex problems because those real-world issues could have an impact on our future and we should have a say in it.

  • William 

We should learn this way because we are the future. If we aren’t exposed to these issues, then we will most likely make the same mistakes. 

  • Jonathan

I absolutely believe that students should be involved in solving real-world issues. The school system has taken our ability to think for ourselves and form our own opinions, and I think that introducing real-world issues is a crucial part of our learning. We should be able to debate with each other and participate in activities that involve actual issues that are happening all over our planet instead of wasting time with one-use information.

  • Rubie
At the Intervale Community Farm, students trade perspectives on food, sustainability, equity, and justice with Vic Izzo (UVM Agroentomology) and Jenna P’Donnell (Hunger Free Vermont)
With ICF famer, Andy Jones, students explored the delicate balance between organic agriculture, government regulations, nutrition, access, and farm wages. Sometimes, a pepper is more than just a pepper. 
And sometimes, a pepper is just a pepper.

 Learning from the real world is empowering. That’s all I have to say. I can leave this program with new views. And I can use those new views to empower others. I’m learning how to lead with confidence. I feel as though I’m actually helping do something instead of sitting in a classroom… 

  • Rubie

Taking on real-world problems makes the learning feel more real, I can tackle certain questions with a sense of purpose. I like to look at problems and say “Oh, this connects to _______.” Those connections make it a good thing.

  • Jensen

Engaging with real  issues is so important that it should be obvious.”Real-world problems” is what we’ve been training for our whole lives. Ever since I was little, my teachers have been telling me “you’ll need to know this for the real world”. I never quite knew what that meant but being in BCL, I can begin to understand what the real world is about. I can use my knowledge that I’ve gathered in this class and apply it to my life after my school years. 

  • Lucie

Learning about real-world issues is great, but I wish we had more time to actually solve them.

  • Lulu




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