Sterling College Receives $1.5 Million Grant to Launch EcoGather

This first-of-its-kind, global tool will connect communities focused on ecological thinking and action.

CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT,  March 19, 2020—Just as the world confronts the coronavirus pandemic and economic pandemonium and the American educational system struggles to transition to online education in a matter of weeks, Sterling College is poised to confront all three challenges simultaneously, with the support of a recently awarded $1.5 million grant.  

Sterling College is breaking new ground with EcoGather, the first online higher education platform of its kind designed to advance ecological thinking and action as a foundation for building regenerative communities. EcoGather will upend the traditional online delivery model of education common among colleges and universities by co-designing courses with communities around the world as they confront the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and a turbulent globalized economy. Communities in Vermont, Bhutan, India, Puerto Rico and England will collaborate with EcoGather staff to co-create online educational courses and tools that can best serve their specific needs and audience.

The platform is designed to turn traditional “distance learning” into place-based, community-focused education that is dedicated to the regeneration of ecosystems, communities and local economies. The first three years of the project is funded by the $1.5 million grant.

EcoGather furthers the original intent behind higher education, “to advance the collective good,” noted Sterling College President Matthew Derr. He said the EcoGather platform will serve individuals and communities that might not otherwise benefit from any higher education resources, “much less those that are designed to foster our relationship with the natural world and address the effects of climate change.” During President Derr’s tenure at Sterling, the college has redoubled its commitment to its mission and has been the recipient of record levels of funding from donors who are committed to its unique programs of study and work. 

Project development is slated to begin in April, with the creation of eight core courses in its first year. By year three, EcoGather will host a minimum of 24 core courses that will be gifted to and adapted by each of the partner communities. For Sterling’s undergraduate students, EcoGather will increase the diversity of educational opportunities, reinforcing the “systems thinking” approach Sterling has been using for decades. For faculty, the platform will be an additional tool available to connect their students with place-based work around the globe. Courses will be accessible and affordable to the general public, world-wide. 

“EcoGather will convert distance learning into place-based education, transform individualized and industrialized online education into community-focused education, and turn virtual classrooms into interactive social action networks,” said EcoGather lead and Dean of Professional Education Philip Ackerman-Leist. “In grappling with the multiple scales of our individual and collective ecological and social dilemmas, it will be ideal to see course participants form tight communities, those communities combining into networks, and those networks inspiring movements.”

This new approach to online education began with a seminar inspired by Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing, which first brought together Sterling College and the NoVo Foundation around British economist David Fleming’s work and legacy, including his posthumously published books, “Lean Logic: A Dictionary of the Future and How To Survive It” and its narrative version, “Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy,” drawn together by London-based author and activist Shaun Chamberlin

“In Fleming’s famous words, ‘Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions, they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.’ EcoGather is exactly that, a global network in support of the great diversity of local conversations, solutions and indeed celebrations that will be necessary as we come to terms with the unravelling of the global market economy, and rediscover our dependence on nature, community, place and play,” said Chamberlin, who is a consulting scholar at Sterling College and will serve as an advisor to EcoGather.

Sterling trustee Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green said, “We’re thrilled to see this next evolution of David Fleming’s work as a new model for community-based education and empowerment. Higher education needs to be brought back into the real world if we are to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ we face; the EcoGather initiative shows us the way.”

Over the last three years, Sterling—inspired by Fleming’s book—has hosted a series of “Surviving the Future” workshops and events for participants asking big questions: “How should we live?” “What work should we do?” and “How can we resource ourselves and each other?” The success of those educational events set into motion the creation of Sterling’s first online course, “Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time,” which will launch on April 6th and be co-facilitated by Ackerman-Leist and Chamberlin. Leaders and experts in the Transition Movement, Extinction Rebellion, post-carbon society, and circular economies will join students live in the eight-week course and engage in dialog surrounding the relevance of Fleming’s work and the fast-moving events shaping our world today.   

While small colleges nationwide have been struggling––or closing—Sterling College continues to expand its reach by way of a ten-year strategic plan which calls for collaborations and partnerships with a broad range of organizations. Last year, supported by a generous grant from the NoVo Foundation, the college launched the Wendell Berry Farming Program, a no-tuition, place-based farming program with The Berry Center in Henry County, KY.  Sterling also recently expanded its School of the New American Farmstead to offer professional certifications in the fields of regenerative farming and artisanal food production. 

For more information about EcoGather, the upcoming “Surviving the Future” online course, and Sterling College, please visit https://sterlingcollege.edu/course/surviving-the-future-2020/.


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