Environmental Symposium, taught by Gretchen Roorbach, is a one-credit fall science elective that invites three professional environmental scientists and activists to lecture on their work. Throughout the semester, Environmental Symposium meets six times, typically at night. Three of these blocks are devoted to pre-lectures in which students read articles, discuss, and prepare for the speaker. The other three blocks are when the lectures take place, during which students listen, take notes, and ask questions. Roorbach, a science teacher and the Environmental and Sustainability Coordinator at Concord Academy, is deeply passionate about environmental justice and educating her students about the planet.

Environmental Symposium has actually existed for over 25 years. Roorbach explained, “It [the class] was originally developed in conjunction with the Concord Conservation Land Trust and Harvard University.” The steward for the Harvard Forest, in Carlisle, MA, was often fielding questions about his research. He coordinated with the Land Trust and both parties decided it would be prudent to educate the students. Originally, the class was named the Environmental Consortium, and it was open to CA, Middlesex Academy, and Concord-Carlisle High School students. Roorbach added, “All three schools worked together, and the format was such that the public was invited.” A majority of the first speakers were Harvard professors sharing their environmental research.

About 10 years ago, Harvard no longer wanted to continue doing the Symposium, and as such, the Land Trust, who had previously worked to find speakers with the university, struggled to bring in new speakers. The funding for the program was cut, and Middlesex and Concord-Carlisle decided to discontinue the class. However, the class was so popular at CA that there was even a lottery to get in. There was an extensive amount of interest for a limited number of spots. Roorbach thought, “Why don’t we just make it a Symposium and make it CA only?” She decided to open up the class to all CA students and find speakers herself. 

Each year, Roorbach picks a theme for the class and tries to find relevant and knowledgeable speakers on the topic. This year’s theme is “Celebrating the Centennial.” Roorbach commented, “I wanted to have alumni who had basically dedicated their lives or had spent most of their lives doing environmental service—not making money out of it, but just being an environmentalist and doing service.”

The class hosted Wendy Bennet ’72 on November 7. Bennet spoke to the class about her work for the Nature Conservancy’s Africa Council. On November 14, the class also hosted Willy Hutchenson, who discussed his work with bird migrations and how data from birds can help protect the environment. Hutchenson is not a CA alumn, however, he is a friend and old colleague of Roorbachs. On December 8, for its final speaker, the class will hear from Tony Patt ’83. Patt is an advisor to the environmental minister on climate policy, assists with the writing and development of climate and public policies in Switzerland, and assesses the technology used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Patt also worked on writing the Paris Climate Agreement.

After each class, Roorbach has each student complete a “TQE”: a takeaway (T), a question (Q), and an epiphany (E). Roorbach believes this helps students better absorb, process, and reflect on the material.

Roorbach noted that she loves watching her students learn about issues that never seemed prevalent to them before. Environmental Symposium is a fascinating class where students are fully immersed in the curriculum, hearing from professional speakers who are each knowledgeable and accomplished in their respective fields. Anyone interested in hearing from Patt is welcome to join the class via Zoom on Thursday, December 8, at 8:30 a.m. EST.