On a cool morning in late September, as mist rose off the nearby Pemigewasset River, a small group of students hiked into the forest that abuts Holderness School’s athletic fields. Their task: to determine how much carbon is stored on the school’s 600-acre campus, and how that number measures up against its carbon footprint.
The students, carrying clipboards and the kind of large measuring tapes used by engineers, were conducting a carbon sequestration lab for their AP Environmental Science course. With more than 50 students enrolled in four sections of the class, it’s one of the most popular Advanced Placement courses on campus.
And there’s little wonder why. The stated aim of the course is to explore the complex web of interrelationships that make up the natural world, and to analyze environmental problems, both natural and manmade. Situated at the confluence of New Hampshire’s lakes, rivers, and mountains, Holderness School provides the perfect laboratory for environmental inquiry.
“I like to get them outside. I don’t necessarily like to just talk about things,” says Science faculty member, Dr. Rachel Jastrebsky, who teaches two sections of the course.
“I think it’s better if they can see it for themselves, and apply it to their lives here on campus.”
On that September morning, Dr. Jastrebsky led her students through the forest to a small study plot studded with mostly deciduous hardwoods - a mix of American beech, red maples, red oaks, and hemlocks. When they reached the plot, students spread out into the forest to measure the diameters of 125 marked trees, and each tree’s distance from a central marker. Using the data they collected, students calculated the estimated carbon stored in the study plot’s trees. From those numbers, students would go on to extrapolate the amount of carbon stored on the school’s entire 600-acre campus, and compare it to the school’s carbon footprint.
And that’s just one outdoor lab of many. Past AP Environmental Science classes have visited a campus stream to test its water and collect aquatic specimens; measured air particulates to determine campus air quality; and solved a dimensional analysis problem to determine how much carbon dioxide would be emitted if every student rode the elevator to class in the Davis Center for STEM – instead of taking the stairs.
While all of these labs are geared toward preparing students for the AP exam in May, the course - at least as it’s taught at Holderness – promises to have a far more lasting impact. In a world threatened by climate change, pollution, and other environmental threats, that’s no small thing.
“There’s really an opportunity to look at what personal responsibility is for environmentalism from a science-based approach,” says Science faculty member Bryan Felice, who teaches two sections of the course.
“It’s not just tracking our carbon footprints, but looking at what the science is behind the most important and impactful ways for the leaders of our students’ generation to feel empowered as dynamic thinkers and policy makers and responsible citizens.”
Both Mr. Felice and Dr. Jastrebsky hope to run the carbon sequestration lab every year. That way, the school can track its increased carbon sequestration as the trees grow larger. Ideally, Mr. Felice says, the school could use that data to move itself toward carbon neutrality - or sequestering just as much carbon on campus as it emits.
“I think it could be really fun and exciting to see how we’re doing in terms of managing our forests - what we are using, and comparing the two,” Mr. Felice says. “Then we can see what kind of goals we can set as a campus-wide community to work towards.”