Sterling College Receives $1.5 Million Grant to Launch EcoGather

This first-of-its-kind, online tool will connect local communities focused on ecological thinking and action.


CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT,  April 28, 2020—Just as the world confronts the coronavirus pandemic and economic pandemonium, and the American educational system struggles to transition to meaningful online education, Sterling College is poised to confront all three challenges simultaneously with the support of a recently awarded $1.5 million grant.

Sterling College is breaking new ground with EcoGather, the first online higher education platform of its kind designed to advance ecological thinking and action as a foundation for building regenerative communities. EcoGather will upend the traditional online delivery model of education common among colleges and universities by co-designing courses with communities around the world as they confront the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and an extractive globalized economy. Communities in Vermont, Bhutan, India, Puerto Rico and England will collaborate with EcoGather staff to co-create online educational courses and tools that can best serve their specific needs and audiences.

The platform is designed to turn traditional “distance learning” into place-based, community-focused education that is dedicated to the regeneration of ecosystems, communities and local economies. The first three years of the project is funded by the anonymous grant.

The inaugural EcoGather course is well underway; “Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time” launched April 6, and has attracted more than 240 participants from around the world

“One student in Australia gets up at 4:00 a.m. to participate in our webinars,” said Philip Ackerman-Leist, Sterling’s Dean of Professional Education and co-leader of the new course. “I’ve been blown away by the diverse backgrounds and demographics of the participants, as well as their passionate expressions of need not just for the course content but also for the sense of community they’ve begun to build, even in the initial weeks of the course.” He added, “As an educator, one doesn’t always encounter such a deep or immediate sense of gratitude from participants in a course––much less in an online course with participants spread across 17 countries.”

EcoGather furthers the original intent behind higher education, “to advance the common local good,” noted Sterling College President Matthew Derr. He said the EcoGather platform will serve individuals and communities that might not otherwise benefit from any higher education resources, “much less those that are designed to foster our relationship with the natural world and address the effects of climate change.” During President Derr’s tenure at Sterling, the college has redoubled its commitment to its mission and has been the recipient of record levels of funding from donors who are committed to its unique programs of study and work.

EcoGather staff are being hired, and eight additional core courses will be added in its first year. By year three, EcoGather will host 24 core courses that will be gifted to and adapted by each of the partner communities. For Sterling’s undergraduate students, EcoGather will increase the diversity of educational opportunities, reinforcing the “systems thinking” approach Sterling has been using for decades. For faculty, the platform will be an additional tool available to connect their students with place-based work around the globe. Courses will be accessible and affordable to the general public, world-wide.

“EcoGather will convert distance learning into place-based education, transform individualized and industrialized online education into community-focused education, and turn virtual classrooms into interactive social action networks,” said Ackerman-Leist. “In grappling with the multiple scales of our individual and collective ecological and social dilemmas, it will be ideal to see course participants form tight communities, those communities combining into networks, and those networks inspiring movements.”

This new approach to online education began with a seminar inspired by Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing, which first brought together Sterling College and an anonymous foundation around British economist David Fleming’s work and legacy, including his posthumously published books, “Lean Logic: A Dictionary of the Future and How To Survive It” and its narrative version, “Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy,” drawn together by London-based author and activist Shaun Chamberlin.

“In Fleming’s words, ‘Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions, they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework,’” said Chamberlin, co-leader of “Surviving the Future,” and a consulting scholar at Sterling College. “EcoGather is exactly that,” he continued, “a global network in support of the great diversity of local conversations, solutions and indeed celebrations that will be necessary as we come to terms with the unravelling of the global market economy, and rediscover our dependence on nature, community, place and play.”

Sterling trustee Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green said, “We’re thrilled to see this next evolution of David Fleming’s work as a new model for community-based education and empowerment. Higher education needs to be brought back into the real world if we are to tackle the wicked problems we face; the EcoGather initiative shows us the way.”

While small colleges in Vermont and nationwide have been struggling––or closing—Sterling College continues to expand its reach by way of a ten-year strategic plan which calls for collaborations and partnerships with a broad range of organizations. Last year, supported by a generous grant from the NoVo Foundation, the college launched the Wendell Berry Farming Program, a no-tuition, place-based farming program with The Berry Center in Henry County, KY.  Sterling also recently expanded its School of the New American Farmstead to offer professional certifications in the fields of regenerative farming and artisanal food production.

About Sterling College:

Founded in 1958 in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, Sterling College advances ecological thinking and action through affordable experiential learning, preparing knowledgeable, skilled, and responsible leaders to face the ecological crises caused by unlimited growth and consumption that threatens the future of the planet. Sterling College is home to the School of the New American Farmstead and the Wendell Berry Farming Program, is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education and is one of only nine colleges and universities recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Work College.”