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We ended up at a sugar house…

13 Mar

To be more precise, we ended up at the North Hadley Sugar Shack, and it was amazing. I was joined by seven other students and two staff members for this snowy, weekend day trip organized by CEEDS. It was my first time ever at a sugar house and even though it wasn’t the rural hilltown sugar house experience, it was great.


This is Joe in front of the evaporator explaining what it takes to boil sap into maple syrup.

While we waited for a table in the restaurant we checked out the syrup making process. I realize that sounds boring but Johnny and Joe, brothers and co-owners of the farm, were there to explain how they are able to boil so much sap at the same time.  They don’t use little pans, like in the olden days, they use an industrial size boiling system that is carefully monitored for changes in temperature and humidity. It’s a good thing they can boil a lot of sap at a time since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. For demonstration purposes they still have one of the smaller, more traditional evaporators; Joe, Jr. was in charge of stirring this one and explaining how it worked. It was pretty much the same as the newer boiling systems, but he had to do everything by hand. Joe, Jr. was about 10 years old.


This is the system that Joe Jr. was in charge of. He used a large ladle to test the viscosity of the syrup.

After tasting some of the fresh syrup and warming up in the steam and heat from the evaporators, we decided to go watch cider donuts being made from scratch by Martha and John, mother and father of Johnny and Joe. Tessa, their granddaughter, was there to help. We arrived to the demonstration a little early, so Martha offered us some of the goodies left over from the earlier demonstration. We each sampled some maple candy, maple cream, and maple butter; I didn’t even know you could make so many different things with maple, but now I know that each is even more delicious than the last. Then Martha started mixing the cider doughnut ingredients, which were then put into a large container that measured and dispensed the correct amount of mix for each doughnut into a machine. The doughnut landed on a conveyor belt, which dropped it into hot oil, flipped it, pulled it out to drain, and then dropped it again in a sugary mix. I got to try one of those freshly made donuts, almost too hot to eat, and they were amazing.


Martha and Tessa handing out cider doughnut samples

Just as we finished our last samples we were called to our tables for brunch. I ordered pancakes with eggs and bacon. As soon as our order got to the table, we all started taking pictures; it just looked so good we couldn’t help ourselves. But we soon dug in and it tasted even better than it looked. There was a full bottle of maple syrup at the table when we sat down, but by the time we left more than half was gone. We really did go all out. I really appreciate the chance to go through this process, from tapping trees to seeing syrup made, to sampling candy and eating fresh maple syrup on pancakes. It was a great experience that I’m not sure I could get anywhere else, let alone at a different college. Although I didn’t try the sugar on ice, like Laura, I still had friends and food.

SugarHouse6Breakfast- before and after…

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Student Spotlight: Sarah Tucker ’13

8 Mar

Sarah is a Biology major, Environmental Science and Policy minor, but upon meeting her you wouldn’t be able to tell that she spends most of her time with marine animals.

ImageSarah’s fascination with marine biology started at an early age. Coming from a family of sailors, she spent a lot of time outdoors, encouraged to explore the environment; she was five when she decided she wanted to be a scientist. This fascination only deepened as she got older. A string of inspirational biology teachers often encouraged her to participate in science fairs and projects. It is no surprise then that Sarah was later selected by Smith College to participate in the Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Sciences program on campus.

As a first-year, Sarah started doing research with Professor David Smith, professor of biological sciences. This experience propelled her into an internship supported by a Clark Science Center Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship for the summer before her sophomore year. Much of the research Sarah did then was on phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism, in this case an invasive crab species in the Gulf of Maine, to modify its phenotype in response to the environment. She has continued this research through a year-long honors thesis, with David Smith and Laura Katz, also a professor in the Biological Sciences, as faculty advisers. Image

Sarah explained the process and challenges of doing work in the field of marine science. Part of the research she does compares the morphology and genetics of northern and southern Gulf of Maine green crab populations. As the green crab expanded its range into the Gulf of Maine, it has faced a broad range of environmental conditions that continuously challenged its survival.  The crab adapted, and has now been able to expand its range into water previously thought too cold. Sarah enjoys this work because it has real life application. The crab she studies has invaded all continents with temperate shores and has caused significant ecosystem disruption. One thing she dislikes is the fact that methods are always changing; “You can be doing all this work a certain way one day and come in the next day to find out that that’s not how its done anymore.” It also means being resilient and adapting to change and unexpected events, like samples dying in the lab or a storm destroying sample collection areas- not unlike the crabs have had to do.

But Sarah is not just a scientist. In the spring of her junior year she went abroad to Russia; an experience that she enjoyed and appreciates. As president of Best Buddies, an organization that “pairs people with intellectual disabilities in one-to-one friendship with volunteer[s]”1, here at Smith she was able to get an internship with the Moscow branch. Sarah was keen to talk about the issues related with awareness and accessibility of disabled people in Russia.

However, Sarah did not go a whole semester without some science. The university she studied at did not offer any science classes, but did allow a local high school to use one of the buildings. Sarah took this opportunity, not only to keep her own skills sharp, but to observe the differences between the American and Russian way of teaching science to young adults. There, she noted, high school students are not exposed to lab until their senior year and only if they have committed themselves to studying science in college.


Sarah came back her senior year ready to finish her honors thesis and with the intention of applying for a Fulbright- a U.S. Department of State program that provides grants for the purpose of conducting research or a project. She did apply,  and was awarded a fellowship to travel to Bali, Indonesia where she will investigate tropical fisheries and work as a conservationist. It was surprising to hear that her main focus would not be research, but Sarah said that it’s time now to work to save the oceans she has studied. With issues like climate change and development propelling marine science-related issues to the fore it seems the perfect time to promote conservation. Sarah believes that ocean ecosystems play an important role and that they need to be protected to ensure that they will survive and continue to provide the goods and services so necessary for so many organisms- human and otherwise.

Even though Sarah is optimistic as she prepares to move on to her next adventure, she expressed mixed emotions about leaving Smith. She will miss the research and environment of Smith and is sad to leave so many unanswered questions. But she is also glad that new students will come to ask and answer at least some of those questions. Her final words of wisdom for the next ‘generation’ of  students who work in the lab? “Crabs are escape artists. Make sure the lids are tight. And ask a million questions.”

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Photo Credit: Shauna Purpura


To Collecting Sap…

3 Mar

Earlier this week I wrote about my adventure tapping trees at the MacLeish Field Station. Today, I want to share my experience gathering the sap collected from those same trees.

On Wednesday I went back to MacLeish with Reid Bertone-Johnson, manager of the MacLeish Field Station, to collect sap. We only spent about an hour there, but it definitely felt like a lot longer. It was drizzling out, and snow had fallen the night before, which meant we were walking through a half of a foot of fresh snow just to get to the trees. Not only was that a challenge, but once I got to the trees I had to empty each bucket of sap into a five gallon bucket that was then used to carry the sap back to the main road and the larger 220-gallon holding container. There was so much sap on this particular day that it only took the sap from one or two trees to fill the entire five gallon bucket.


This picture shows two of the trees that were tapped together with one of the five gallon buckets. After I emptied the small buckets the orange bucket was too heavy to carry and I had to go find another empty bucket to spread out the weight.

Needless to say, I was struggling. Being from southern California, I tend to “overdress” this time of year, so I was equipped with my large, water-proof winter jacket. It didn’t take long for my hair to get moist, whether from the rain or sweat I couldn’t tell you. Reid ingeniously suggested that we only fill the buckets half-way to carry them back, which I did, but it didn’t help much. I was still spilling sap all over myself, sweating, and tripping over my feet as I slogged with the heavy buckets through the snow. I don’t think Laura had to deal with this.*


This is Reid! He is emptying one of our five gallon buckets of sap into the larger holding container that Mr. Bean will come to collect.

The result of our labor was a combined 37 gallons of sap from all 50 trees, making it the biggest single run thus far. And I am proud to report that the first tree I tapped produced about 5 gallons of sap that day. Reid called it a “hard core New England experience.” I’m going to call it the day the trees showed me who is boss.

This weekend I will be making my way to a local sugar house with other Smithies in hopes of enjoying some sugar on ice, just like Laura.

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

* Refers to author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her inspirational “The Little House on the Prairie” children’s book series.

From Tapping Trees…

28 Feb

It all started with an email …”help make maple syrup at MacLeish.” I was a little hesitant to say yes to this trip, mainly because I had no idea what tapping trees meant or understood just how amazing the making of maple syrup is. But then I remembered my childhood days, not when I went out to tap trees, but of when I read the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a kid, from the urban center of Orange County, California, I never had these experiences. I climbed the fruit trees that my mother planted when she bought our house and ran up and down the block with the other kids. I didn’t have woods or creeks, and animals consisted of the bugs I tried to call pets.

But that email reminded me of when I read of prairie and sugar on ice; I wanted to experience that. I wanted to be able to make my own maple syrup as easily as it seemed in the book and I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment. What I got was a hard lesson on how to get the most and best sap from the tree.


Don handing out tools and buckets so we could get on with the tapping.

As soon as I stepped out of the van, I knew that this was not going to be just a walk in the woods. Don Reutener, a retired Smith psychology professor, was there to make sure we did it right. He explained how to use the different tools and where the best places to tap the trees were, but knowing all of this could not have helped me identify Sugar Maples or find an easy way to trek from tree to tree. Being a “city kid,” I never learned the difference between one tree and another, especially trees in February that have no leaves on them. In that sense, I failed, but walking on fresh snow was a little easier to overcome. When there’s a good four inches and you’re carrying buckets, drills, and hammers it can get a little complicated. But this was definitely where I started to pretend I was a settler in new woods. I stopped caring about getting snow in my boots or getting my hair stuck on twigs. I just went for the next tree and started tapping or passing tools to the person tapping. I tapped about 10 trees and then decided to check on my first tap. To my surprise there was already some sap in the bucket, which filled me with a sense of accomplishment.


This is the first tree I tapped. We then proceeded to tap it three more time since it was a big tree.

This week I will be going back to the MacLeish Field Station to empty out buckets and take our sap to a neighbor’s sugar house where it will get boiled down into maple syrup. I am sure Laura will be there on my shoulder, cheering me on…

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Life after the blue (recycling) bin: a visit to the SMURF

7 Feb

During January I visited the Springfield Municipal Recycling Facility (SMURF) as part of the Five-College Environmental Leadership Workshop.  This facility accepts materials for recycling from several municipalities and schools in Western Massachusetts, including Smith College. They use a dual-stream system, which means that they only take pre-sorted items in two categories- in this case, paper and plastic.

ImageThis is where the trucks dump their loads of plastic. Trackers are then used to push the bottles through a small hole onto a conveyor belt to start the sorting process by color and number.

This video clip ( shows the beginning steps of the plastic recycling process. Take home message? Don’t include plastic bags with your recyclable plastic containers! (Local stores like Stop and Shop will accept plastic shopping bags for recycling.)

ImageThe sorted plastics are packaged into bales to make it easier to weigh and transport them.


Paper waiting to be transported to a local paper mill where it will be mixed into their production line.

As we walked through the paper storage area a truck came in to unload. This video clip ( shows the vehicle unloading about two tons worth of paper and cardboard. The SMURF receives several such truckloads every day.

-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Five-College Workshop in Environmental Leadership

1 Feb

In mid-January, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Five-College Workshop in Environmental Leadership. This was a week long workshop that included a movie screening, panels with alumnae of the Five-Colleges, a workshop with the Center for Environmental Civics, and keynote speakers.

The week started with the film screening of “A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle of a Living Planet” a documentary that outlined the history of the environmental movement. It tells the story of the grassroots, global fight for the environment of the last fifty years. Some of the campaigns the film highlighted included stopping construction of dams in the Grand Canyon and Greenpeace working to save the whales. I have seen many documentaries about environmental movements, but this one did an especially good job at  showing the history of each of the particular campaigns and why they were successful.fierce green fire

For the rest of the week, we attended a panel in the morning and a lobbying workshop in the afternoon. The panels were split into different categories: law, business/industry, government agencies, engaged science and elected officials. These panels were very interesting because, with the exception of the elected officials, they were all alumnae of the Five-Colleges.  Many of the panelists spoke about their careers and how they got there; it was great to hear this from individuals who once sat in the same seats that we did. The conversations also illustrated how many different paths you can take with an Environmental Studies major. I was impressed with the many different ways these individuals thought of their education and were able to then translate that into different career fields. The best part of these panels was the networking that went along with them; we were able to engage in informal conversations and share ideas with all the speakers. I felt like I got some advice that I will be able to use for the rest of my life.

The afternoon lobbying work shop run by Chris Bathurst and Paul Newlin from the Center of Environmental Civics, Inc. was a great help in giving us the basic skills to run our own successful environmental campaigns. Chris and Paul were great at giving us the basic guidelines of an issue and then letting us run with it. One of the things I liked the most was that we were able to work in groups with students from the other colleges. The relationships we were able to build will be invaluable when we go out to run a real campaign. I enjoyed that we were given the freedom to find our own issue and work in small groups, but that Chris and Paul were still available for questions and feedback.

We were also fortunate enough to have Gus Speth, renowned environmental lawyer and advocate, author of Globalization and the Environment (2003), America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (2012), and many more books. Mr. Speth spoke of the need for the U.S. to change economically and socially in order to ensure that future generations will have the same resources we have today. As someone who believes in the need to think in new ways to address environmental issues going forward, I agreed with Mr. Speth on many points; like having prices reflect the true costs of goods and services and making sure that society is truly happy. I have yet to read Mr. Speth’s latest book, but it is definately on my reading list for the semester.

This workshop was just the thing I needed before starting my last semester at Smith. I enjoyed getting the chance to see what my education can translate into once I am out of Smith. And I also enjoyed meeting people who embody the idea that you can connect the environment to any field out there.  It doesn’t matter if you are interested in business, politics, or education, it’s all connected.
-Stefanie Cervantes, ’13

Blue Sky Initiative Meets Olmsted

22 Jan

About a year ago, the Five-Colleges (University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Hampshire, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges) decided to think about ways to make all the schools more sustainable- individually and collectively. Last summer, hundreds of ideas generated by campus community members as part of the Blue Sky Initiative were tossed around, separated into different areas, and a shorter list of finalists was decided upon for further review. As a CEEDS intern, I was asked to look at that shorter list and choose one that interested me. I have always been interested in sustainable land use and so was immediately drawn to the Sustainable Landscapes Project. Fellow CEEDS intern Renee R. and I read over the proposal and started brainstorming ways that this initiative could be implemented on the Smith campus.

One of the unique things about the Smith landscape is that it was designed in 1893 by renowned landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted. Olmsted also designed Central Park in New York City, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” and many other well known National Parks here in the U.S.  The Smith landscape is typical of Olmsted, and incorporates his principle of highlighting the natural landscape and incorporating this natural beauty into the built environment. With the help of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum, changes to the campus have been made, as much as possible, in keeping with that original Olmstedian vision.

In 1995, the College issued a landscape mission statement. It reads:

” The Smith College landscape is a constructed environment. When we are careful, it is artful; and if we are thoughtful, it will be shaped by an ideal vision. An ideal landscape composition cannot be created whole; once created it cannot be maintained is static form. It changes in response to the requirements of the people who inhabit it. College campuses are ordinarily designed with an unusual intentionality. Smith College’s campus adds to usefulness and beauty a commitment to use the landscape as an integral part of the educational mission.”

This statement was the basis for the development of the Landscape Master Plan that was released in 1996. This Master Plan outlined the importance of keeping the Olmstedian principles ingrained in Smith’s landscape design. Renee and I took the above principles and those from Blue Sky’s Sustainable Landscape Initiative to create a new, contemporary mission statement for this new project.

“The goal of the project is to identify and convert underused and ecologically/economically costly spaces into more sustainable, cost-effective social areas. Currently, these are maintained lawns that serve no purpose for aesthetic enjoyment or education engagement. Parts of the campus landscape have not evolved with the current green mission of the College, and this project aims to rectify that while maintaining the original Olmstedian ideals of integrated natural landscapes and continual utility. The Sustainable Landscape Project provides the opportunity to integrate the campus into the educational experience. ”

With this new mission in mind we started to look at possible areas for conversion. We discovered that in the 1996 Master Plan, the space in front of Neilson Library was supposed to be developed as an outdoor social area. Why the idea was dropped is unknown, but since this area is currently planted in grass and not used by students it seems perfect for conversion!

As of right now, we have many ideas for how to transition our landscape to one which is less resource intensive to maintain and which incorporates more formal and informal “learning moments.” Our ideas include outdoor sitting areas, native and edible plantings, and engagement of different academic departments.  For now we will continue to gather more information and connect with others who might help with this project in the hopes that when President Christ and the Five College Board of Directors meet later this spring this project is one of the initiatives they choose to move forward on.
– Stefanie Cervantes, ’13olmstedplan

Student Spotlight: Siiri Bigalke ’15

20 Nov

Siiri Bigalke is a sophomore with a strong interest in environmental policy. She is highly involved on campus with the student group, Green Team and also does work outside school to pursue her interests in the environment. When Siiri came to Smith she already had the background to be a great environmental advocate; she was involved in a youth environmental group in high school and had gained experienced in the policy side of environmentalism.

Coming to Smith, she found she could still do want she loved as a Green Team Facilitator. As a first-year, she worked with the House Sustainability Reps to expand the Earth Day Festival in April to Earth Week . Earth Week brought awareness, in the form of a trash audit, and fun, in the form of a carnival, to sustainability. This year, Siiri and Green Team are focusing on a Divestment project. This is an attempt to encourage Smith to invest in a socially responsible way by withdrawing investment they might have in the fossil fuel industry. Green Team is collaborating with 40 other schools nationwide who have similar goals and with other schools that are in the same investment group as Smith. Another project that Green Team is working on is making composting and recycling more accessible in academic and administrative buildings. The goal with this project is to provide more locations for composting and recycling and then provide a map of campus with these locations land marked.

This past Summer, Siiri attended Rio +20 conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and at the end of November she will attend the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 18. She will be attending the COP 18 as a Youth Advocate to ensure that the goals of young people are met in the outcome of the conference (you can follow her as she blogs about her time at COP 18 here). One thing that Siiri noticed at Rio +20, and that she is aware will happen in COP 18, is that delegates are often unwilling to implement policy that will make a difference, especially when it comes to the “super powers” like the US and China. This is a frustration that Siiri has, but she realizes that there is not always an instant change and it is a struggle to implement environmental policy. She hopes to gain international experience that she can transfer to her work at Smith.

Siiri hopes to be able to connect what she learns at these conferences and in academia with what is happening outside of Smith. In the near future, Siiri is looking into possibly studying abroad and continuing her research and work. She is also planning on attending grad school in environmental policy or sustainable development. When it comes to future career, Siiri wants to work in the context of environmental policy, but is still unsure about whether she wants to go into national or international politics.

-Stephanie Cervantes ’13, CEEDS Intern

Franklin Permaculture Garden

31 Oct

Recently, I was able to attend a tour of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMASS Amherst) permaculture garden next to the Franklin Dining Commons. Permaculture is a kind of environmental design that mimics the surrounding natural ecosystem or attempts to represent the land as it historically used to be. The garden at UMASS Amherst uses a design that is based in natural ecosystem design, but provides food that people need. One of the main reasons that this technique is becoming more common is that it provides a more natural landscape, while producing great services.  The unique things about this movement is that the design and growing process can vary; the UMASS Amherst garden is very well planned out, with pathways and tables, but it can also be a plot of land that if left to grow over,  might produce some basic nuts and crops.

I got to meet some students that were involved in the development of the garden and they were able to provide a brief history of the project. John Gerber, Professor of Sustainable Food and Farming, was teaching a class on Sustainable Agriculture and asked his students to come up with an idea that would change the world; what they came up with was a permaculture garden outside one of the biggest dining halls on campus. The area used to be a green lawn and was actually supposed to be transformed into an extension of a nearby parking lot, but after a couple of months that project was dropped and the students got the chance to pitch their idea. At the same time, a grad student, Ryan Harb, had designed and build a permaculture garden on his yard as part of his masters education and hosted an Open House where much of the administration was convinced that permaculture was beneficial. In 2010, Harb was hired to implement the first UMass Amherst permaculture garden. It took many volunteers, but after two years the garden is flourishing. Students take the crops from the garden at sell them at the UMass Amherst Student Farmer’s Market.

The garden has become an important educational and community building tool that students and the community can take advantage of. This garden is also important because it shows what students and volunteers can do in regards to building a more sustainable campus.

Stephanie Cervantes ’13, CEEDS Intern

Massachusetts Green Career Conference

17 Oct

On October 4th, I attended the Massachusetts Green Career Conference in Marlborough and had an overall great experience. I was a little hesitant to go because I am from the West coast and though I am trying to keep my options open, staying in MA after graduation does not always sound appealing. But I decided to register and even found two other students to carpool with. The conference sounded amazing – looking through the website, there were a large range of speakers, resources, and a raffle for attendees.

The day started with a keynote panel with six different speakers from a range of backgrounds. The speaker that stood out the most to me was Greg Watson, an expert on agriculture in Massachusetts. He explained the basic system of farming in New England and then went on to praise the great efforts of small Massachusetts farmers. I was impressed by how much he knew about agriculture in this area and by how complex farming can be when you try to be sustainable. Watson did a great job of showing how local farmers have promoted themselves to be key players at the state and national level because they have found new ways to innovate their practice; everything from promoting buying locally, preserving lands, to establishing youth programs to get the youth excited about farming. He also touched upon how farmers have found ways to be part of the clean energy movement by installing wind farms on their property or building methane digesters to produce bio-gas.

After the initial introduction speech, I attended a session titled, “Sustainability, Building, Energy, Farm & Food Systems.” It started off a little slow with a presentation on the Sustainable Energy Program at Greenfield Community College, but it was interesting to see how a school with fewer faculty resources  and a different student demographic than Smith is able to create a program that is so successful. The last part of this session was a presentation by Rebecca Owens. She started off by explaining her background as a student and new graduate and then went on to speak about the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and their work on college campuses. I had the honor of sitting at the same table as Owens during lunch and got to hear, in more detail, about her path to where is now. She also gave me many ideas and advice on things that can be done on the Smith campus to improve student involvement and increase awareness.

One of my favorite parts about this conference were the coaching sessions. For no extra charge, you could sit with a career coach for twenty minutes and talk about anything that you personally needed help with. I did my session with Amanda Peters, an MIT Career Counselor, and  it was a great help. I walked in with a few general questions about grad schools and internships and my resume on hand. We talked a bit about what possible direction I could take with my current interests and possible internships that I should apply to. I mentioned an internship that I was thinking about and Amanda got right on changing my resume to fit the internship and highlight my strong points. I was surprised by how much she cared about increasing my chances to get this internship.

Overall, I am very glad I attended this conference because it showcased jobs and possible options for me that I did not know existed. It was a very good resource in just general job and grad program searches and, especially helpful in searching for green careers. I know I got a lot out of my attendance and would like to thank Joanne Benkley and CEEDS for not only providing the information on this conference, but also providing a way for Smithies to attend.