Experiential Learning

A new facility for the Ecology School

Supported by Poland Spring

Held_DJI_0059.jpg

Turning off of Simpson Road onto the long dirt track that leads into River Bend Farm is a taste of quintessential New England:  a large meadow on the left rolls down to the tree-lined Stackpole Creek below, a wood-slatted fence meanders alongside the road, a line of giant spruce trees tower on the right, and in the distance a shingle-clad barn peeks out from behind the trees.  As one gets closer to the barn, another building comes into view, an old yellow painted farmhouse just up the hill.  A chicken hurriedly runs behind the barn, startled by my arrival. 

Upon pulling into the farm, I’m immediately greeted by Bryan Matluk, the Development Director of the Ecology School.   “Welcome to the new site!” He says, gesturing around us.

“Wow, what a spot!” I respond, seeing the Saco River’s great sweeping bend down the hill behind the farm.

Once a horse farm, the 105 acre property of fields and forests on the banks of the Saco river was recently purchased by the Saco based Ecology School.  It will become the new campus for the school, which focuses on experiential learning in ecology, conservation, and sustainability.  While the Ecology School currently sees around 12,000 students from around Maine and New England annually in their current space, the new facility at River Bend Farm will allow them to reach an even greater audience and have year-round programming.

Held_IMG_3732.jpg

“You want a tour?” Bryan asks excitedly and we hop into a John Deere Gator with Leanna, the Development Associate.  A double-track trail leads down the hill to the Saco River through a mix of meadows and forests.  This land below the farm, which has a Maine Farmland Trust easement, will be used by the Ecology School the teach students about the world around them.  The Ecology School also hopes to start growing food on the property, and begin engaging students about where their food comes from.  

“That is a really exciting part of this project for me.” Leanna tells me as we bounce down the dirt track.  “That kids can learn about farming, and eat food that they had a hand in growing.” 

This large farm will also allow the Ecology School to partner with other organizations.  A small orchard of American Chestnut trees planted by the University of New England is on our right as we continue to drive along the trail out towards the far side of the property.  Bryan slows down to show us the trees, and says, “We’ve worked with UNE to plant a test of 100 trees here.  This is just the first of this kind of collaboration.”  

Held_IMG_3685.jpg

We then head back up to the farmhouse, where I’m shown the plans for the future of the Ecology School at River Bend Farm: a poster of beautiful architectural renderings.  “We will be building three dorms over here,”  Bryan shows me, “And then right over here there will be a Dining Hall.”

The new campus has been designed by a collaboration of four of the leading architectural firms in Maine.  The entire facility will be built to meet the most rigorous green building standards, those of the Living Building Challenge, which not only utilizes environmentally friendly building materials and practices, but also seeks to be energy positive (ie.  More energy is created on-site than is used).  The Ecology School hopes it will become the first building in Maine to meet these rigorous standards.  

Of course, an ambitious project like this does not come cheaply.  “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the generous contributions of or supporters,” Bryan tells me.  Poland Spring has been a proud supporter of the Ecology School for almost two decades, and their contributions have made this new facility a reality.  It is their hope that thanks to programs at the Ecology School, our next generation will grow up learning to become stewards of the natural world.  

Held_IMG_3663.jpg

As I left the Ecology School, Bryan smiled and waved saying, “Come back soon!  Things will be changing quickly around here!”  I will certainly take him up on that offer, as I have an inkling that the great work of the Ecology School is only getting started.