Life-Changing Experiences at 20 Below by Jen Cirillo

Jen Cirillo, Shelburne Farms' Director of Professional Development
In this reflection, Jen ponders how her own educational experiences helped her understand the broad a perspective we need to “take learning beyond the personal” and teach others about sustainability.

Life-Changing Experiences at 20 Below

By Jennifer Cirillo

 Jennifer Cirillo graduated from the Audubon Expedition Institute/Lesley University in May 2002. Currently, she is the coordinator of Shelburne Farms’ Sustainable Schools Project in Vermont, where she coordinates professional development in sustainability education for K-5 teachers. In this reflection, she ponders how her own educational experiences helped her understand the broad a perspective we need to “take learning beyond the personal” and teach others about sustainability.

It was negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit and I wasn’t going to fall asleep. I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn’t wake up to see the sun rise on the Canadian Rockies. Even though my sleeping bag was rated for such ridiculously cold temperatures and could keep me alive, it couldn’t keep me comfortable. All night I tossed and turned pondering “Energy”. How much food energy did I need to consume to keep warm? I heard rustling in the snack bag hung high in the tree; Bridget was into the peanut butter again. How much warmth could my body create on its own? Erin, one of my tent mates, popped up, did fifty sit-ups, and lay back down. How much easier it would have been to turn the thermostat up a bit!

Mid-way through my first graduate semester with the Audubon Expedition Institute in the province of Alberta, Canada, I thought a lot about energy; it was regularly part of my visual and physical experience. The majestic Rockies and Dinosaur Provincial Parks’ Badlands—along with oil rigs, natural gas processing stations, hydroelectric dams and coal mines— defined the landscape. And that is precisely what I was there to learn about with fifteen other students from around the country. We were a group of M.S. in Environmental Education candidates who were studying globalization and experiencing the natural, social, and cultural world, all while living outdoors.

We were hungry for knowledge and became consumed with the task of learning from the land and the people who have inhabited it. We began to form our own opinions as “energy users”—what were the major issues, how might they be addressed and what would the impacts be on the communities? Then, over the course of five weeks, we visited and met with representatives from the oil industry, walked into the inner workings of a hydroelectric dam and donned protective jump suits to tour a natural gas plant. We also met with representatives of the Cree Nation, environmental activists and educators, naturalists, and those who opposed increasing our dependence on and use of fossil fuels. I had never been that intrigued by energy other than as a budding environmentalist thinking about lessening my impact on the planet. However, with my increasing curiosity from in-depth conversations and observations I wondered how we as educators might get others interested in learning about energyor for that matter, global sustainability.

Before our mid-semester break I was fortunate enough to meet Dave Mussell, an educator at Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development (PIAD), who offered professional development to help Canadian teachers teach about global climate change and get students excited about energy. I knew that I had tapped into a wonderful resource and community of educators who were truly “radical environmentalists”. Instead of protesting at the headquarters of multi-national oil companies, they were doing something way more subversive: They were inside corporate boardrooms, sitting down with presidents and CEOs of major fossil fuel companies, and educating them on green energy. And they were educating future consumers—students—in classrooms around Alberta.  Finding out about all the negative things people are doing to the planet and each other and trying to stop it is one small piece of the puzzle.  What the folks at Pembina taught me was that being able to see all sides of a situation and openly communicating across political, social and environmental divides is the key to sustainability.

Our semester break offered a chance for us to delve deeper into our studies, work with a local organization, and explore different career paths. My classmates went off in different directions; I spent my break at PIAD learning from Dave and others there. (You can learn more about the great work of PIAD at While I was at Pembina, I lived in the heartland of the oil and gas industry. I learned about the people who rely on these jobs and about their culture. Dave explained to me how he got kids and teachers excited about energy and showed me some of their wonderful resources. My task was to put together an informational display for teacher workshops on the resources PIAD offers, but that was really all a means to an end. Perhaps what is most interesting about this experience isn’t the actual details of what I did or learned[1] but rather that two things happened there that changed my life.

 A new understanding of my responsibility—Changing my role as an educator

I had begun my graduate studies thinking I would end up being an environmental educator who dedicated her life to teaching children about the natural world. My path seemed clear until I met Dave. He was teaching hundreds—if not thousands—of school aged children by training their teachers. Dave, through his own enthusiasm and understanding of energy and climate change issues, was inspiring teachers to incorporate these important local and global issues into their classrooms. The rich discussions we had on the craft of teaching, my research into energy and sustainability, provincial science standards, and developing curriculum began a new chapter in my own education. Together, we had started answering my question; how can I teach others about global sustainability? Dave helped me turn every scrap of information into my learning library and each experience into a laboratory experiment. I was able to see connections between my own personal transportation choices and the fate of the Cree Nation. I could apply my background in plant science to understand how solar panels operate. The link between workers’ quality of life and the environment’s health became clear. Most importantly I could see how I fit into this web of energy.

Taking the learning beyond self

This process that began with investigation and a growing curiosity moved towards personal reflection and an increased understanding of my responsibilities as an educator and global citizen. One of the things I wish for as an outcome of any lesson or unit of study is that the learner can take the knowledge and apply it outside the confines of a classroom. Stimulating the mind is just one piece of learning; I intend to awaken each student’s heart and sense of caring as well. What is the purpose of education if it is not to facilitate experiences that help the learner access information, develop critical thinking skills, and practice citizenry that inspires them to become involved in their communities?  

Years later, I realize that I had taken my learning beyond thinking about energy as an environmental issue to a global issue with impacts on the social, political, cultural and economic landscape as well as the natural world. I had become invested not only in my own success as a student but also in the PIAD educational programs and in teaching others about energy and climate change. As a matter of fact, the first unit that I helped fourth and fifth grade teachers develop was on alternative energy in Vermont. My fellow graduate students, who had comparable service-learning experiences with organizations around the country, seemed similarly inspired as several have gone on to work in renewable energy fields, the protection of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, and teaching others about global climate change.  

This experience truly could have been about another issue—water, food, human rights. What still rings true and what I hope to offer other learners is a seed of wonder, a connection to a community and its multiple perspectives, an opportunity to make a difference and to take the learning beyond the personal. Thankfully, not every life-changing experience begins with sub-zero temperatures!

"Making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure, is the completing step. As soon as he is possessed by the emotional attitude of the group, he will be alert to recognize the special ends at which it aims and the means employed to secure success. His beliefs and ideas, in other words, will take a form similar to those of others in the group. He will also achieve pretty much the same stock of knowledge since that knowledge is an ingredient of his habitual pursuits." – Dewey, Democracy and Education


[1] For example, you can run a Bunsen burner using goat manure that is anaerobically breaking down in a five-gallon sealed water jug! Dave heated up his lunch on this contraption each day.

 Go to for more information on the Audubon Expedition Institute.



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