Field Term Q&A with Ben Rendall

Field Term Q&A with Ben Rendall
Suzanne Morrissey

Brewster’s newest academic offering is an exciting trimester immersion called “Field Term.” Twelve students will live and learn together at a camp in the Belknap Mountains in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, and explore the intersection of the earth sciences, math, and the humanities. We spoke with the program’s founder and faculty member, Ben Rendall ’07, about his vision for this groundbreaking experience, why Brewster is the right place for it, and what he hopes students will gain from a trimester studying in this unique way.

Q. What is the goal of Field Term?

A. The mission of this experience is to equip the future stewards of our planet with confident, critical minds and love for the great outdoors. This program intends to forge connections between people, the earth and its resources by integrating math, art, science, and literature through a place-based residential field program. This is a trimester immersion experience. 

Q. What does “trimester immersion” mean?

A. Just as with our Global trimester immersions, it means that the students are living and learning off campus together, fully immersed in the place they are studying. Field Term students will be sleeping in cabins, prepping and having their meals, and taking their classes all on site for the entire Fall Trimester.

Q. Where is this taking place?

A. It all happens at Camp Bell, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. The camp is part of a 9000-acre block of conservation land in the Belknap Mountains, about 30 minutes from Wolfeboro, on the western side of Lake Winnipesaukee. The camp property is on Manning Lake and close to Round Pond, and includes the headwaters of the  Suncook River. 

Q. Can you please describe what students will be doing?

A.They will have both traditional and field-based classes that will use the local setting as a natural laboratory. They will also work as a team on outdoor skills and activities, like rock climbing, canoeing, and backpacking.  Students will learn transferable skills using ArcGIS, a geographic information system software that is used by nearly every major industry to integrate and display quantitative and spatial datasets. This is a critical tool for connecting natural sciences to human societies and their impacts on the planet. As part of an immersion experience, the students will be cooking and eating meals together, living in the cabins on the site, and maintaining our living space together with the goal of fostering a tight-knit and supportive community. 

Q. How are traditional classes being worked into what seems like a very outdoor adventure-type experience?

A. At the heart of this program is integrating disciplines by using common focal points as the subject matter. In their English course, for example, Field Term students will embark on a study of Transcendentalism and Naturalism, and the nature writing of classic romantic authors. In history, they will learn about the historical geography of New England and how that relates to conservation, preservation, and sustainability—and current land use issues. Art class will find the group creating multimedia artwork, including site-specific art that showcases the beauty of the natural surroundings we’ll call home for the trimester! We’ll also dive into digital cartographic methods and displays that combine earth science and human impact layers. We’ll be creating and interpreting graphs and plots, using math as a tool to simplify and understand the relationships that are interrogated in science classes. The final piece is our daily work in what I have termed “RIVERS,” our outdoor skills and ethics class. RIVERS stands for Recreating In Vulnerable Environments Ethically and Sustainably.

Q. Will the students be leaving the camp at all during the term? Will they come back to the Wolfeboro campus for events?

A. Yes. While students will spend the majority of their time at Camp Bell, they will have opportunities to come back to Brewster campus for major events, college meetings or testing, and other important commitments. The intent of this program is not to sever connections to the main Brewster experience, but instead to augment the Brewster student experience by deepening their connections to the “place” that is unique to our school. Also, I plan on inviting Wolfeboro campus students to come visit the Field Term site, even for some overnight camping trips! 

Q. Why is place-based education important?

A. We know that hands-on learning experiences offer huge benefits to students in terms of absorbing concepts and becoming connected with the passions that may shape their future studies, lives, and careers. Place-based learning does the same, helping students connect to their surroundings and seeing real-life implications and applications of their work. There are some great examples of successful place-based learning programs that we’d like to emulate, including St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack Semester and The Island School in the Bahamas.

Q. Why is Brewster the right school for this program?

A. Brewster has many amazing facilities and programs that leverage the dedicated teaching faculty, administration, and athletics. Perhaps Brewster’s greatest under-realized resource is its local setting. By sampling the best of what Brewster already does, especially student-centered education, and leaning into the local environment as a primary teaching resource we have the opportunity to build on something that is already great. 

Q. Ben, you are a Brewster graduate yourself. How did your experience here influence the vision you had for this program? 

A. I grew up in Gilmanton and like many coming to Brewster it was transformative. I spent most of my extracurricular time engaging in the Outdoor Skills Program (OSP), which really introduced me to the amazing offerings of our local setting. The director of that program was Jonathan Fouser, who at the time was also my AP English teacher. Combining my newfound passion for the outdoors with thoughtful academic conversations set me on a path into earth science where there is a natural link between the two. The final piece for me was re-introducing the human element to our study of the planet by combining the human history and experience with our scientific understanding of planet Earth and our evolving reliance on its resources. My experience at Brewster taught me the value in drawing connections between disciplines in order to find universal purpose - and that is what I am trying to pay forward with Field Term.

Q. And what drew you back here at this stage in your teaching career? What classes are you teaching right now?

A. After graduating Brewster in 2007, I have had a lot of great adventures in the field of earth science. After my master’s degree I spent four years working as a research scientist in the energy industry in Houston, but always felt a draw to the classroom. I went back to the University of Texas for my PhD in Geology (defending Summer, 2021) with the intention of a teaching and research career at a university. Last summer my family and I were visiting New Hampshire before we were scheduled to depart for a research job in Qatar when we found ourselves back in a place and community that we loved. Since global borders were closed and the new position became uncertain, we decided to take a breath and enjoy the place we were in. I began thinking about my own experiences and where my greatest inspirations came for me that fundamentally came back to my time at Brewster. I began developing a summer program to engage a more diverse group of high school students in earth science and contacted Dr. Gemmell about using Brewster’s campus as a venue. Long story short, I ended up teaching physics and chemistry this year while developing both the new summer program and the new Brewster trimester program - Field Term.   

Q. Is it accurate to say that this Field Term trimester immersion is your passion project? Why is this something you are passionate about?

A. This is an accurate statement. I have put a lot of myself into the development of Field Term, and the product is something I am certainly passionate about and proud of. I am passionate about the interconnectedness of the subjects we teach and learning to find and draw out the connective tissue between them. My drive comes from the enhanced depth of learning I have personally found through application. I want to give students the opportunity to apply what they know, to find their own “why,” and have a lot of fun while they are doing it. Ultimately, I wanted to create something with purpose that would outlive me. Something that my 2-year-old son, Robin, would be proud of—and hopefully want to do someday.

Learn more about Field Term here

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