Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 20, 2014

Environmental trailblazers

High-schoolers forge new paths with internship course

By Dustin Luca

---- — A pilot class at Andover High School is being celebrated for serving as a crash course in careers, so much so that the idea is expanding to other areas.

Last fall, the high school Science Department offered seniors the Environmental Sustainability Internship Course. Led by teacher Melanie Cutler, the class paired students with mentors in town government and the private sector to tackle projects with real-world implications.

“Each mentor gave the students a project to work on, something related to environmental sustainability,” Cutler said. “The students spent two days a week out in the field with their mentors, and the other three days, they were in the classroom.”

Student Matt Boulanger worked with the town’s Conservation Department on the eventual removal of the Balmoral Dam by Shawsheen Square. He also developed newly written policies for maintaining and protecting town waterways.

It was “work that really has meaning,” Boulanger said, adding that it didn’t fit within the walls of a traditional class rubric and carried more tangible, real-world impacts.

Jenny Hill also drew a conservation assignment and helped negotiate the eventual tear-down of an unusable, hazardous structure along the Merrimack River. She also put together land management policies for both that property and adjacent Phillips Academy boat house land that the town expects to purchase.

Town Conservation Director Bob Douglas, who worked with both Hill and Boulanger, said there were times that he had to remind himself they were high-schoolers he was putting to work.

“I very quickly forgot these were students and brought them on-board as trusted colleagues, and they always rose to the occasion,” he said.

Douglas said the tear-down of the Merrimack River structure is something the town had been trying to get done for some time. He watched as Hill “called up different contractors and negotiated its removal for free for the town.”

“It’s amazing stuff to cold-call somebody and put a deal together,” he said of Hill’s work.

Student Sarah LaMacchia, meanwhile, worked with the town’s Department of Public Works, focusing almost exclusively on residential recycling habits. After conducting a survey of how residents recycle, she created a public service announcement to explain town recycling policies.

LaMacchia signed up for the course initially because she thought it would be “a valuable experience I could put on my college application.”

In the end, she said she picked up a number of other skills — time management, resume writing, all things that would normally be taught the hard way, out in the real world.

“You really had to figure out everything for yourself, managing your time, doing work outside of the building,” she said. “Initially, it was the whole process of resume writing. That’s something we’re obviously going to need to do, but they don’t teach it to us.”

Angelina Lionetta, who worked with the Andover-based consulting firm Entegra Development & Investment, said her experience with green construction certification helped her hone in on her presentation and public speaking skills.

She did so as she covered everything from updating employees on recent certification criteria changes to running a feasibility study that ultimately recommended the company avoid a certain business opportunity.

“I used the policies I had learned about to do a feasibility study on a historical building in New Hampshire that they were thinking of renovating,” Lionetta said.

With the company expecting to pursue the highest possible government rating in its renovation work, “I researched it and looked at their energy intake and said, ‘No, you can’t.’”

In many respects, Douglas said the students were leaving “a great legacy” in the work they did. The projects “have a strong and positive impact that will have long-lasting consequences for the town,” he said.

As students completed the course and reflected on what they accomplished, Boulanger said they were “kind of the guinea pig class” for internships at the high school.

“It would be cool to come back however many years down the road and see more classes like this,” he said.

The Environmental Sustainability Internship pilot course could have broader implications, according to Cutler, who said the school administration is now considering internships in other departments, including social studies and languages.

A similar course was recently given the green light by the School Committee. Engineering and math teacher Minda Reidy is seeking to change the game by having students work with teams of professional engineers on semester-long projects — an expansion of the single-mentor concept that Cutler’s course was built on.

“You’re learning to work on a team, which is not something our students have right now,” Reidy said. “It opens them up to a lot of industry — a lot of places, even a small shop. I’m very excited.”