top of page
Courtesy of Madeline Canmann; Unsplash/The Xylom Illustration

I Designed My Own Curriculum for College. Here’s How My Experience Can Help Fight Climate Change.

I took control of my educational path when I was a sophomore in high school.

I had my first exposure to philosophy and religion studies, and it was a turning point in my life. I realized that there was a term for what I was — an atheist. So instead of focusing on the humanities or participating in group sports, I chose to look down at the rocks below my feet, to observe the world around me, and seek to understand the world that existed before me.

After that class, all I craved was information about the physical world. I contacted the school and arranged to move up and study advanced environmental science with the seniors. I also took biology over the summer because I didn’t want to interrupt my learning with a two-month break, and by the time I reached the winter of my senior year, I had enough credits and a satisfactory GPA to graduate early.

I applied to three universities: Illinois State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I got into all three, but I moved to Olympia the moment I graduated high school. I chose Evergreen State for a few reasons:

  • I was able to design my own curriculum

  • Each course offering was a mix of at least four disciplines

  • There were no “core class” requirements

  • Evergreen State used a non-traditional grading system using narrative evaluations

  • I was able to design my own classes and choose my faculty

  • There were plenty of opportunities to do undergraduate research

Evergreen functions on the quarter system, and the first class I took spanned two quarters. It was called “Drawing on the Earth,” and it included instruction in geology, drawing, and the study of Earthworks, or using elements you find outside to create temporary art installations in nature. Most of our projects included synthesizing what we learned about geology into something beautiful and communicative in nature. This was my first exposure to science communication using art, and it is something I am still very passionate about.

That course translated to twelve credits in Earth Science with Laboratory and Field Work, plus four credits each for Introduction to Drawing, Art Appreciation, Experimental Art with Earth Materials, Seminar and Expository Writing, in addition to Research Paper and Oral Presentation.

IAEA fact-finding team leader Mike Weightman examines Reactor Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on May 27, 2011, to assess tsunami damage and study nuclear safety lessons that could be learned from its meltdown. (Greg Webb /IAEA)

My undergraduate research project materialized as an independent learning contract about two to three years later after I had become more knowledgeable about soil science, which I chose as an underlying focus in all of my classes. I wrote a proposal to look into the potential absorption of radioactive chemicals in the clays along the Pacific Ocean and within the Puget Sound after the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. I chose Evergreen’s Science Operations Manager as my advisor as he was the only one I knew with a license to work with radioactive chemicals, and because we had very productive ideation sessions together that really encouraged my exploration. I chose to take on this research at a perfect moment in time because according to the information we have on ocean currents and the rate of circulation, two to three years was ample time to see appreciable differences in chemical absorption on the other side of the Pacific (if there was any).

At Evergreen, the way we kept track of our educational progress was to write evaluations of our courses: how we felt we did, how our professors felt we did, and a summary of what we learned. My official transcript is between thirty and forty pages. The unofficial is boiled down into a two-page academic summary, and it denotes the number of credits received per course — if you don’t do well, you lose credits. You graduate when you finally receive 180 credits.

Although cumbersome and unlikely to be read by anyone but me in its entirety, my official transcript is an extremely detailed record of what I’ve learned, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. When I look back at it today, the information floods back to me in detail. I appreciate the effort to refresh my future self on what I learned, what I was good at, and what I needed to work on. It means a lot more than a number. It’s a clear picture of my progress and process of developing certain skills, and it is full of lessons.

In order to thrive in an academic environment like this, you must be very self-motivated and self-directed. In other words, nobody is going to tell you what to do, so you must figure it out all on your own. I realize not everyone can thrive in such a boundless environment, b