Jacob Holzberg-Pill created and manages the Outdoor Technology Program at the Northwest Career & Technical Center. As described on its website, this interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to immerse students in outdoor-based learning that creatively explores high-skill, high-wage, and high-demand careers. RiseVT caught up with Jacob to discuss his accomplishments and his students’ exciting projects.

What is the Outdoor Technology Program?

The Outdoor Technology Program is a pre-tech curriculum for younger high school students (9th-10th graders). It is highly collaborative and serves as an introduction to the various programs offered at the Tech Center. In the past, students have participated in cooking/foraging projects with Culinary Arts, construction projects with Building Trades, First Aid projects with Public Safety & Fire Services, or social media and advertising projects with Digital Media. Participants benefit from these programs of study by earning college credit and preparing for entry into careers or higher education in their area of interest.

What is the current focus of the Outdoor Technology Program?

This year, students are working through a landscape ecology and management program. They are learning about forestry, agriculture, horticulture, landscaping, and more! Students earn math and science credit by going outside and developing ideas for community-focused projects. Previous projects have included building a gaga ball pit at Fairfield Elementary, planting an orchard at St. Albans Town Education Center, working on trails at Hard’Ack, building and installing bird nesting boxes, pruning fruit trees, planting edible gardens around local schools, helping with seasonal landscaping in downtown St. Albans… the list of accomplishments is vast! In addition to hands-on learning, students have been able to explore careers in environmental fields by learning from maple producers, farmers, landscapers, excavators, foresters, nursery workers, and bird and animal experts. The goal, in Jacob’s words: “To introduce students to ecosystem-focused careers, give them school credit for their work, and launch them in the direction that they have an affinity for and hopefully get to pursue!”

How has RiseVT supported the Outdoor Technology curriculum?

One of the most exciting projects began as a grant for orchard and berry plantings for nutritional education activities at the St. Albans Town Education Center (SATEC). Though it started small, the project gained momentum with support of the school administration and advocates for farm-to-school initiatives. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded grants totaling $300,000 to school districts in Franklin, Grand Isle, Caledonia, and Orange counties to connect classrooms, cafeterias, and communities to Vermont farms and local food (source). U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy visited SATEC that year during National Farm to School month to celebrate this incredible accomplishment with the community.

More recently, RiseVT has supported an edible landscaping project. The edible landscape will include lots of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, edible perennial plants, and numerous pollinator plants. In addition to the farm-to-table aspect, it is inherently educational for Outdoor Technology students as the landscape location requires understanding and management of stormwater mitigation as an element of project.

What do you think needs attention in our community?

Jacob’s passion for environmental education is infectious. Our conversations throughout the interview made it easy to see why he holds such an accomplished role as both an educator and a leader in our community. Here are his top 4 community concerns:

1. There is too much waste in Lake Champlain! There are many historical and expensive structures in place that make this our reality, and changes to these structures would require large-scale support. However, from a human health perspective, there are many times when we cannot swim in the lake and there are limits on the safe quantity of fish we can eat. Further, there is conclusive evidence that shows the need for children to have strong experiences linking environmental experiences with eating in order to make strong environmental decisions as adults. Kids who respect nature become adults who respect nature.

2. The Vermont vision. There is a lot of discussion in the Northeastern states regarding food sovereignty and access to healthy/affordable food. Related, COVID-19 has shown us that markets can change drastically in short periods of time and farmers need to rapidly adapt. However, many systems do not work, and we have “efficiencies” that are failing. Current realities make it difficult for our remaining farms to compete with corporate farms. We see similar struggles in the Vermont maple sugaring business. Added to the equation, the hemp industry is a burgeoning field trying to find its place. We must ask ourselves: How do we maintain our rural heritage, our tourist dollars, state tax revenue, employment, and keep Vermonters in Vermont? How does the state want to look in the future? We need to ensure there is a vision, an appropriate plan, and sufficient people and resources to tackle these difficult questions.

3. We need internet access for all children. Though there was a lot of government support and resources throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to support the teachers, many would say the thing they needed most was a reliable internet connection with their students. Internet has moved from an optional luxury to a necessity.

4. The big picture for higher education: Higher education in Vermont is suffering. When compared with quality public colleges and universities in neighboring states: “Students can go to SUNY Anything for cheaper than they could attend UVM.” We lose a lot of high school talent due to these other options, and college is not even a possibility for others with challenging financial situations.

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