The bags Tamar Cunha brings each week to the Church of the Good Shepherd’s food shelter are stuffed with leafy greens, a rotating bounty of lettuce, swiss chard, and kale. “Soup kitchens need fresh produce, and that’s often a challenge,” says Cunha, Chair of Tabor’s Science Department. It’s a challenge that students in her aquaculture elective have helped address by building the hydroponic systems from which the greens that go to the shelter are harvested.
Aquaculture is an upper-level science elective that’s part of Tabor’s robust marine science program. It combines conceptual knowledge with meaningful hands-on experience. At the start of the course, students learn about the history of aquaculture and hydroponics and how different cultures have employed them. (Aquaculture is the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms, such as fish; hydroponics is a type of farming that grows plants without soil.) Once this theoretical framework is established, students have an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned.
The second half of the course centers around a group project. Students can either conduct a research experiment or construct their own hydroponic or aquaponic system. Whichever they chose, they must first present a detailed proposal to the class. As part of that process, Cunha asks students to consider a daunting scenario. Imagine you finish the project, she tells them, and everything has gone wrong.
“That really throws kids for a loop,” Cunha says. “It’s called a ‘pre-mortem.’ They have to think about what could fail in their design. I’ve found it really helps students think about and plan for potential pitfalls.”
After incorporating feedback and revising their proposals, the groups start building. There is a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) component to the work as they learn how to use power tools like drills and PVC cutters to bring their designs to life. “The engineering piece is interesting to kids who want to dip their toes in that process,” Cuhna says. “Students who wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable taking a pure engineering class are excited about the fact that they’re going to build something and grow plants with it.”
The most successful projects are the ones currently being used to grow produce for the food shelter. At the end of the trimester, students leave the class with a heightened awareness of food systems. “They have more of a sense of where their food comes from,” Cunha says. “They no longer take it for granted that food just shows up or you buy it in the supermarket.”
Although the aquaculture elective is a relatively new offering, Tabor has long been on the forefront of sustainable food education. The school’s unique location and facilities, encapsulated by the Marine and Nautical Science Center, have created rare learning opportunities. Through these courses, many alumni have discovered passions that have shaped their futures.
At Tabor, Cyrena Thibodeau ’12 excelled in the marine biology program. That’s what prompted her to apply to the University of Washington. “I was originally going to do fishery work there,” she says. But once she got to Seattle, she found a calling in another field. Literally.
“I worked on the student farm,” she says. “It was kind of what I did in college. That’s where I met the majority of my friends, and I just got super into it.”
After graduating with a degree in environmental science, Thibodeau stayed in Washington and worked on a vegetable farm. “I thought I was going to be a farmer for a bit, but then I found out how hard it is,” she says. “It’s incredible how much farming is really a lifestyle. It’s never ending. There’s no stopping at five.”
She moved back to the East Coast and started working for an organization that trains farmers. “There were a lot of new farmers, but also a lot of immigrants and refugees who had a ton of farming experience coming from their home countries,” she says. The program Thibodeau worked for helped these farmers obtain land and establish themselves in local markets.
In 2020, she earned a master’s degree from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. The program’s unique curriculum gave her an opportunity to study agricultural science paired with policy. “I liked the balance of research but also learning about food security and access. It was a more holistic picture.”
Thibodeau currently works for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, where she helps run the state’s Farm-to-School Program. This involves connecting schools with food producers and administering a grant which, among other benefits, increases education around sustainable agriculture. Beyond a clear passion for what she does, Thibodeau is driven by a sense of purpose. “I want to make sure the work I’m doing actually matters and is responding to the needs of community groups,” she says.
In reflecting on her journey, Thibodeau credits Tabor with igniting her interest in science. “I took AP Environmental Science and that absolutely spurred my interest in continuing to study and work in that space.”
Clare Knowlton ’13 can relate. “I didn’t go into Tabor thinking I was a super sciency person,” she says. “And then I took AP Environmental Science my junior year.” The scope of the course––approaching science from a big picture, inter-connected perspective––appealed to her after struggling through chemistry as a sophomore. This led to an important realization about how students learn.
“It’s so easy to assume, ‘oh, I’m just bad at science and math.’ It’s easy to become frustrated or even angry with your teacher if it doesn’t come easy to you,” she says. “It cuts you off from the learning and the progress you can make. I felt that happening a lot in math and science my first two years at Tabor. Figuring out that it doesn’t have to come easily to you for it to be valuable or for you to enjoy it was huge. I remember it so clearly, and then I saw it with my own students.”
At Trinity College in Connecticut, Knowlton majored in environmental science while taking a heavy slate of anthropology courses. She found herself drawn to the intersection of science and culture, an interest she carried into the classroom when she took a job as a science teacher at Forman School in Litchfield, CT. Her favorite class to teach was upper-level ecology, which covered everything from evolution and genetics to ecosystem dynamics and farming legislation.
To help her students engage the content, Knowlton partnered with a local farm. The class took weekly field trips throughout the term, assisting with a variety of tasks: weeding the garden, foraging for mushrooms, preparing packages for a local food bank, and collecting and analyzing soil samples. The learning did not stop when they left the confines of their classroom.
“The farmer would talk to them about botany and horticulture and animal husbandry, all this stuff she was doing in practice,” Knowlton says. “They were very interested in the fact that this was her family business, and we’d see the different points where the stuff she produces intersects with the local public school system or a farmer’s market.”
Knowlton is currently pursuing a master’s degree in food systems at the University of Vermont. It’s an interdisciplinary program that gives her the flexibility to study a subject that is close to her heart. “My research focuses on STEM curriculums being taught in New England boarding schools via farming or gardening programs,” she says. “It’s very informed by the ways I would like to teach in the future.”
She plans to return to the teaching side of the classroom as soon as she graduates, where her perspective will surely inspire the next generation of science students, similar to the experiences she and Thibodeau had at Tabor. The school’s ongoing commitment to programs that address the intersection of climate change, food security, and sustainability offers a tremendous opportunity for Tabor’s students.