A Classroom in the Forest

School kids and would-be MBAs learn how to do their part in caring for the environment amidst hemlocks and sword ferns, wetlands and living machines
Filling the forest amphitheater to overflowing, 100 fourth- and fifth-graders drown out the sounds of birds and wind with their own song.

    “Predator and prey, producer and decay, are in the food chain, ch-chain, chain…”

    Like all good camp songs, the tune is infectious, and the story vivid: Rabbit nibbles on a plant and then is caught by Coyote, who leaves her scat on the trail for the insects to turn into plant food.

    It's the final gathering at the Friendship Circle for the kids of John Muir Elementary, and they sum up their four days of environmental education at IslandWood with gusto:

    “The cycle never ends, it just begins again, in the food chain, ch-chain, chain.
So eat your food, my friend, but remember where it's been, in the food chain, ch-chain, chain.”

    For the previous group of students to hold classes here, the tune may not have been as catchy, but the tenor of the lesson was much the same.

    “While every supply chain is trying to get more efficient, a values chain goes far beyond that.”
It's Management 509, Sustainable Operations, and the second-year Masters of Business Administration students from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) are tackling supply–chain management.

    With an occasional pause to flash a flowchart on the classroom's large flat-panel display, instructors Dennis Gawlik and Dwight Collins outline the traditional manufacturing process. At the same time, they insist something more is possible: a production cycle that more fully accounts for its social and environmental impact. In that model, businesses can be “eco-friendly” and increase efficiency by harnessing the by-products that industry traditionally ignores. “That's where this revolution, this notion of sustainability, starts—by looking into the life of the product,” Dennis tells the class.

    It's the business version of a healthy food chain: using the scat to nurture something green. And it offers a fair notion of the values that have made both IslandWood and BGI pioneers in the field of “sustainability education.”

    The two start-up schools—both based on Bainbridge Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle—teamed up last fall when BGI moved its business classes and lectures to IslandWood's campus. “(BGI is) teaching current leaders, we're teaching future leaders,” says IslandWood's executive director Ben Klasky.

Sustainability made visible
For IslandWood founders Paul and Debbi Brainerd, the seed of sustainability-based education sent up its first shoots in 1997, when they purchased property on the forested slopes of south-central Bainbridge.

    Their vision of an environmental learning center was grand from the get-go: an education facility combining nature, art, science, and technology that would set children on a path to environmental and community stewardship.

    Grand, and timely: the state of Washington mandates environmental education across the K-12 curriculum. Motivating that mandate is a growing body of research on the benefits of environmental education, including higher scores on standardized tests and improved overall academic performance.
    Now in its third full year of operations, IslandWood has seen 10,000 school children from more than 100 schools in the region participate in its programs, many from the urban schools of Seattle. Most take part in the center's flagship program, a four-day residential learning experience for fourth- and fifth-graders.

    As a site to learn about biodiversity, the 255-acre center is an educator's dream, encompassing six different ecosystems and a nearly complete watershed. Trails wind from a cattail marsh and natural bog, descending through pockets of second-growth forest to a fern-blanketed ravine. From a four-acre freshwater pond, a historic salmon stream flows down to public park land and the Port Blakely estuary, where timbers from the Port Blakely Mill, once the largest sawmill in the world, still remain.

    For naturalist Karen Salsbury, every step through the site offers her 10 student charges a new experience. Calling Team Marsh to a halt, the IslandWood naturalist urges them to listen for the red-winged blackbirds they heard the day before. Further down the trail, she plucks up some Gallium ssp., “velcro plant,” and hands it around for the group to feel its sticky, burr-like surface. “I have a hard time not stopping every 50 feet,” she confesses.

    Still, she sets a brisk pace for this morning's mission: the Tree House. Twenty five feet up the bole of a Douglas fir, the group gets a birds-eye view of the bog. Karen points to a stubby cluster of hemlocks in the distance. “How old do you think those trees are?” As old, she tells them, as those in the surrounding forest. “It's like orange juice down there, very acidic. And those trees are stunted by the acidic environment. Why are they still growing? Because they've adapted.”

    IslandWood's lessons are not just about the world outdoors; the school has earned national attention for its focus on what IslandWood's technology coordinator, Clancy Wolf, calls “the built environment.”

    “This campus makes a lot of principles very visible,” he says. “These buildings have a huge potential for teaching.”

    From its composting toilets to its solar-paneled rooftops, IslandWood is a showcase of sustainable design and construction. In the classrooms, every surface is a demonstration of recycled and renewable material, from countertops made of soybean shells and recycled yogurt containers to floors covered in cork and bamboo. In the art studio, a window wows students with a view inside the plaster-covered walls, where straw bales hold up the roof.

    Textured, tactile, and visually interesting, the structures are nothing like the standard school room—“just enough out of whack,” Clancy says, “to create a little cognitive dissonance, to challenge our assumptions.”

    This comprehensive effort to reduce its ecological footprint and put sustainable practices on display earned IslandWood and Mithun, the architectural firm which designed the campus, a coveted Gold-level certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council.

    The campus has become a classroom for architects nationwide, and its appeal has drawn new revenue which, along with donations, enables IslandWood to subsidize the school visits. A glimpse at next month's schedule shows a prominent area politician and a multinational coffee company bringing groups to the center, and weekends filled with nature and art classes.

Daring to live your values
When IslandWood's neighbor, the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, found its offices bursting at the seams with eager MBAs, the IslandWood campus presented an ideal solution.

    As much as BGI's co-founder Gifford Pinchot believes in conservation, he's adamant that some of what we've inherited shouldn't be conserved for future generations. Topping the list is the idea that business and morality are mutually exclusive.

    “Society has been rigged in such a way that people think they dare not live their values,” he says. “[BGI] was an opportunity to see just how much the chance to live those values can add.”

    Scarcely three years since its founding in early 2002, the school is flourishing, offering two- and three-year MBAs in Sustainable Business, as well as a two-year certificate program.

    Their curriculum—though not their success—flies in the face of what BGI calls the “Friedman Principle,” after influential free-market economist Milton Friedman, which dictates that market value for stockholders trumps all other considerations. “Traditionally, taking responsibility for environmental or social impact is considered irresponsible in business,” explains Rick Bunch, BGI executive director. Or, as Gifford puts it: in business as usual, it's immoral to be moral.

    Increasingly, though, corporations are becoming convinced that their future success demands a different strategy. Under the aegis of “ethical business,” “corporate responsibility,” and “sustainable development,” firms are coming around to the idea that environmentally sound and socially just behavior can be profitable.

    “Sustainability is the next big trend in business,” says Kevin Hagen, principal of Shuksan Energy Consultants. “Huge corporations are in the process of transitioning to more sustainable business models—within the next five years, I think MBAs trained in sustainability will become mission-critical employees.”

    It's a belief that brought Kevin, already a seasoned entrepreneur in the field of renewable energy, back to the classroom two years ago as part of BGI's second crop of MBAs. Since then, the school's enrollment has doubled, and doubled again with the incoming class numbering over 50.

    That growth speaks to the huge, unmet demand for sustainable business education. Its principles have already entered the corporate mainstream—83 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs believe sustainable development offers “real business value” to their firms, according to a 1998 survey. But the concepts of sustainability have been slower to gain ground in major business schools. Absent from core curricula are such key concepts as “the triple bottom line” (measuring profit for business, society, and the environment), and full-cost accounting (including the costs of business choices to society and the environment).

    The lagging commitment to sustainability at other schools has led world-class educators—among them living systems theorist Elisabet Sahtouris, alternative energy guru Amory Lovins, and industrial ecology pioneer John Ehrenfeld—to join BGI's list of visiting faculty. And the demand for MBAs trained in sustainable business strategies has CEOs like Patagonia's Michael Crooke and Gene Kahn, vice president of Sustainable Development at General Mills, lining up to speak (and scout) at the school. These luminaries, enough to make any b-school shine, are only part of the appeal of BGI's program, which infuses sustainability into every aspect of the curriculum.

“One of the key mythologies is that growth is good, and that more growth is better,” Mark Anielski is telling his Sustainable Economics class. “And that growth will solve all the problems in the world, including poverty.” As an example, he displays a graph of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, the standard indicator of economic vitality, which has sloped resolutely upward for the past few decades. For contrast, he shows another measure, the Genuine Progress Index, which accounts for change in social and environmental assets, as well as economic ones. That slope is nearly flat, with a disturbing downtick in recent years.

    While GDP is standard macroeconomics fare; GPI certainly isn't. These students will learn both. The school's credibility depends on challenging contemporary views of business while still covering the territory an MBA is expected to traverse. “If they leave here without being able to read a balance sheet, we're in trouble,” jokes Gifford.

    That's not likely to happen. Although the program is part-time, designed to meet the needs of work and family, the course load is demanding. The four-day residential sessions held each month are filled to the brim with six hours of classes a day, plus meetings, study groups, and lectures. “They call them ‘intensives' for a reason,” says Ann Brudno fortifying herself with a handful of almonds as she waits for classes to begin again.

    It's in the intensives that much of the work of building sustainable business models takes place—the face-to-face inquiry, the push and pull of competing values and ideas, the creation of a collective understanding among individuals with notably diverse backgrounds. Oil industry and high-tech execs rub shoulders and toss frisbees with entrepreneurs in organic foods and cooperative housing—a mix of experience that's as integral to BGI as the coursework itself. “The school encourages students to use their real life circumstances as part of class work—which is not only more relevant, it helps share rich experience and real-life situations,” confirms Kevin Hagen.

    Buoying students and staff is a sense of camaraderie that underlies all of BGI's lessons in sustainability—what student Sarah Miller describes as “an entire community of like-minded people, each of us dedicated to making a difference in the world.”

    It's a feeling that the move to IslandWood has strengthened—both through the sustainable practices that pervade the campus, and the social connections that living and working together can foster.

    “The students are learning a lot about creating a community with a common purpose,” Rick says. “We want them not only to hear that there is a different way of doing things, but to experience it. Now they know it is entirely feasible.”

    For its part, IslandWood has benefited from the exposure BGI's presence has brought, and from having business leaders regularly visiting campus. And there's talk of joint programming in the future. As BGI grads become successful parents and IslandWood's elementary schoolers sprout into MBAs, sustainable education promises to become a virtuous and lifelong cycle.

Kathryn Haines, a free-lance writer, lives on Bainbridge Island; Klhaines @ att.net. Find out about IslandWood at www.Islandwood.org and BGI at www.bgiedu.org. Full disclosure: BGI and YES! are neighbors and Gifford Pinchot is a YES! board member.
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