Academic Excellence

April 14, 2020

Each April, current students meet with their advisers to plan their programs of study for the following year. One of the hundreds of exceptional course options available to them is INT519: Green Umbrella Learning Lab (GULL), taught by Andrew McTammany ‘04, Instructor in Science and Sustainability Education Coordinator. GULL is born out of a process called “Exeter Innovation” through which Exeter instructors are invited to propose exciting experimental student learning opportunities that don’t fall within the traditional scope of the  established departments. The Curriculum Committee reviews the proposals, the department heads weigh the practicality of them, and the faculty vote on the proposals put forth. Each year, about five Innovation courses are approved for a two-year pilot. At the end of those two years, a decision is made whether the value or interest in the course has shifted or whether to approve it for the core curriculum. GULL’s popularity among the students and impact on the community have given it a permanent place in the course catalogue.

"In creating action from ideas, one of the amazing things is the story that the students can tell after they’ve gone through what they’ve learned, experienced, and achieved."

“GULL unleashes the student potential,” according to McTammany – and there’s a lot of it! In the first half of the course, students learn about the history of sustainability both at Exeter and in the United States. “Examining Exeter’s own sustainability story, telling the narrative arc of how the school has evolved” is a rich and fascinating journey says McTammany. “Researching past issues of The Exonian, the students discover that the hunger for knowledge and action that have moved the school forward is not a new passion at Exeter. Exonians have a tradition of not being satisfied with the status quo and have been driving environmental efforts since at least 1970 when the students requested a course on ecology, inspired by the activism from the national environmental movement.”

Phillips Exeter Academy prepares our students for a lifetime of learning with a curriculum that seeks to balance the breadth of exposure and in-depth pursuit of a student’s strongest interests. Gifts to The Exeter Fund designated to Academic Excellence impact the quality of learning for each and every Exonian.

Exeter's efforts have come a long way even since McTammany was a student here at Exeter, and he laughs as he shares that his class’s “Community Action Day involved raking leaves”. By contrast, in the second half of the course, students work in small groups to research, design, and implement relevant campus sustainability projects that benefit the Exeter community. Students read the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein to encourage projects that are truly interdisciplinary in nature, drawing not just on sustainability, but on science, entrepreneurship, and even the arts. Students keep detailed reflective journals and give a formal presentation on their project.

They researched the composition of the masks and discovered they could sterilize them utilizing an autoclave from the science department. The sterilized masks were then melted down and the plastic molded into coasters in the Design Lab. The final result, beautiful blue-marbled plastic coasters, were given away to classmates, teachers, and friends.


While the final products are important, McTammany finds valuable real-world experiences most impactful. “Students leave the course with very tangible experience as project designers and managers,” he notes. “I love learning and discussions, but this is a class where they’re expected to execute a project.” It’s not just the students that are learning. McTammany, who has a background as a chemist with degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University, learns something new with each project, too. “There’s only so much prep that I can do as an instructor because once the students come up with ideas, the sky is the limit!” he says with pride. In his role as Sustainability Education Coordinator, McTammany is turning his sights on doing a systematic review of the science department curriculum to evaluate what courses touch on sustainability and where the opportunities lie. He recognizes that there was a “real shake out after the pandemic of what are we doing, what should we be doing, what is still important, what has changed?”

Just like gifts to The Exeter Fund, when it comes to sustainability, all efforts, big and small, matter. As McTammany concludes: “Our current students read stories about past students over the years taking on projects and efforts, all of which is preserved in institutional memory, and are continually inspired by the alumni body and how ‘normal’ people achieve great things.” From Anthropology to Theater, commitments to giving back enhance Exeter’s centuries-old tradition of academic excellence.


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