Ron Schildge; Computer Science Teacher; American School of Paris
Interviewee: Ron Schildge
Computer Science Teacher
American School of Paris
Interviewer: David Corsar, NWFRon is a Computer Science Teacher at the American School of Paris. As a 2001-2002 NWF Fellow, Ron focused on evaluated the feasibility of using biofuels on the Middlebury College campus.
David Corsar: So, to start out, looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an NWF fellow help shape your career path moving forward?
Ron Schildge: I applied for the Fellowship in order to make biodiesel – vegetable oil diesel fuel –at Middlebury College and to explore the potential for biodiesel to be the fuel of the future. Since then, there’s been a number of things that make biodiesel less than the most attractive option. The VW scandal peeled back the myth of clean diesel, and also the falling price of oil made biodiesel not financially feasible for most consumers. Nevertheless, the Fellowship experience was great for me, especially the education component. I enjoyed teaching people about how you could make your own fuel, what options there were for trying to get off fossil fuels, and how to use non-traditional sources of energy.
What I learned from that experience was that I liked teaching, and I liked working with people on a one-to-one level. So after I graduated Middlebury, I went on to work as a teacher at Holderness School in New Hampshire. After a wonderful year interning there, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Malawi as an education volunteer. Afterwards, I returned to teach at Proctor Academy in New Hampshire where my wife and I got married. Proctor was a great school that truly practiced its commitment to environmental awareness. My wife had been working there since graduation and was looking to explore the world and serve the poor as I had in the Peace Corps, so we moved to India to work at the United World College in India. These schools are all over the world, and they take two students from each country and bring them together to learn from one another. Oftentimes they are very disadvantaged students; they don’t have opportunities in their home country, so the United World Colleges are providing a chance for them to get an excellent education in the International Baccalaureate program and then go on to study at some of the best schools in the world. It can be a springboard for, for example, young Chilean goat herders or Vietnamese rice farmers to be able to go on to the Middleburys or the Harvards or the Stanfords of the world. I was the Director of College Counseling, and so my job was to help them dream big and achieve those goals. It was a wonderful experience.
Then, I moved back to the United States to work at Suffield Academy where my wife and I had our two boys. When my boys were 5 and 6 years old, we decided to move to Paris and work at the American School of Paris. I’m teaching Design & Technology now, and I’m loving life as a father, expat, and teacher.
Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always made an emphasis to be a part of the enviromental movement. At Suffield Academy, I led the sustainability program, and I did a lot with trying to bridge independent schools together. For example, a friend at Loomis Chaffee and I founded the New England Independent School Sustainability Conference. For the three years that we ran it, students and faculty at different schools in the southern New England region were able to share the great work they were doing. A lot of these schools had exciting programs and learned a lot from one another.
RS: As a Design & Technology teacher, much of what I teach might seem disconnected from environmentalism or sustainability. However, a lot of my technical computer science work goes towards building digital tools to protect and connect my students to the physical world. For example, right now I’m helping my students make mobile apps that are melded to the local environment, building a sense of place, and helping them to connect to their community. They have a lot of liberty to choose how their apps will function, and I encourage them to reflect on how they want to interact with each other. I have another class where we do a lot of modeling - we take a phenomenon with multiple agents involved, and we simulate their interactions in the computer. The first model we work with is a wolf-sheep predation model where we look at how wolves and sheep populations are related. For example, the model shows that as the sheep population rapidly increases, the wolf population initially lags behind. However, wolves continue to multiply, and this ultimately leads to a collapse of the sheep population. As the sheep population decreases, the model sometimes results in a complete die-off of the predators, leading to what I call a “sheep-ocalypse” – too many sheep. And then I ask the students, “How could we devise a manageable system so that we have a functioning equilibrium of wolves and sheep?” So, we introduce factors such as the grass reproduction rate and look at how that impacts the population of wolves. Do wolves eat grass? No; wolves eat sheep, but sheep eat grass, so you can look at the relationship between the variables.
And then we look at this same phenomenon in Yellowstone and how they’ve reintroduced wolves. As a result of that, the vegetation population has increased because the deer population decreased. And you now have more vegetation along the streambed; you have greater shade and less evaporation from streams, and so when you have the reintroduction of predators into a system, such as Yellowstone, you have a cascading impact that no one would necessarily predict, unless you had the benefit of computer science and also a good understanding of how complex systems in the real world interact. It gives a sense that what you’re doing with technology is not devoid of humanity, and while you can get really involved in the technical aspects of what we do, we have to remember that there’s a duty also to make something that makes the world a better place.
DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
DC: Looking back, what motivated you to begin on this path incorporating sustainability into your career?
RS: I’m more or less an atheist now, but I grew up Catholic and taught Sunday School in high school. With the influence of my faith, I had a strong sense of right and wrong. Since then, I’ve drifted away from the Church, but I’ve always kind of wondered by what standards we judge whether something is ethical or unethical. Without that almighty God doing the deciding, there is quite a bit of room for debate about our day-to-day choices. I’ve wanted to make the informed choices, so I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this matter.
For instance, I drive my car to school with my kids and my wife, but we could have ridden the bus; it’s just much more of a hassle. Am I making a mistake in driving? Like most of us, I do some mental calculus every morning to decide whether it’s worse trying to push my family to get out the door in time, which might involve a bit of hustling my kids (laughs) to go upstairs faster to brush their teeth, etc. Anyway, I always thought about these kind of trade-offs and their externalities. As I went from high school to college, I began thinking more in terms of how can we can make the right choices for our communities, our species, and for Gaia as a whole. I think that led to my focus on our responsibility for the environment.
DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
RS: Bill McKibben, who was at Middlebury while I was there. You know, he’s someone that everybody knows in the movement and respects for his calls to action. But I also I get a lot of inspiration from my brother in law, Justin Lindenmayer. He is a good friend of mine, and he has a wife and a couple kids too. He’s trying to make a good life for his family, trying to stay true to his ethical values. He’s worked for a company selling environmentally responsible foods the last few years and is doing similar work now. I think he’s a great motivation for me because we live similar lives; neither of us are likely to be publishing groundbreaking works. But if he can do some good, it gives me hope that I can too. In our own ways, hopefully we’re making a difference in the communities we live and work.
DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches that have assisted you in developing your career path?
RS: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of great teachers that I’ve worked with. Most recently, Dave Rockwell, I’ll give him a shout out absolutely. For over 40 years, he has worked at Suffield Academy promoting ecological and climate awareness. He’s encouraged thousands of students to make the right choices for our communities and the planet. That kind of long-term commitment is rare and has made a difference in our world and certainly in my life. I don’t know many people today who find a community in twenties and then committing themselves to that community for the rest of their lives. Regardless of the ups and downs; regardless of who comes and goes. I think there’s a lot to be said for looking at everyone as meaningful souls in their own right with hopes and dreams. I have a lot of respect for that. I have a lot of respect for Rocky, as people called him, for having made as much of a difference as he has at Suffield.
DC: How would you describe or characterize that relationship? What made it a successful mentorship relationship?
RS: He was always really open and always nonjudgmental, always interested in talking, and I could trust him with questions. He didn’t just say, as someone who’d been at the school for 40 years, “we’ve done that before,” “we’ve tried it before,” “don’t bark up that tree,” but he had the energy for years to continue expanding programs that he’s been working on for decades, and he was willing to continue trying new things.
DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentee again or perhaps a mentor yourself?
RS: Yeah, absolutely. I have a lot of younger students who I think look up to me as a mentor in various respects – trying to inspire them to work in the field of computer science but also to live hopeful lives.
And in terms of mentors in my life, I have a lot of respect for the head of my school, Mark Ulfers. I got the job here through a search firm. The head of the firm has worked with international schools around the world, and said Mark Ulfers is the best Head of School, hands down. Since then, I’ve watched how he handled himself, and I was particularly impressed by how level he is and honest and aware of his audience and able to find the upside of everything.
As you get older, I find personal growth is more about modeling particular admirable traits of others rather than idolizing “role models”. You think there’s just a few things you could do better, and you notice those who seem to have a knack for it. And so, I think Mark’s modeled for me some pretty core principles, and I respect him a lot.
DC: What advice would you give to students today?
RS: I think that it’s important when you’re young to dream big, so that when you’re old, you don’t look back at your youth as having made too many concessions. Go after your dreams; that doesn’t mean go smoke a ton of weed, but dream big and do what you want to do. There’s the Henry David Thoreau quote about trying to suck the marrow out of life, the marrow from the bone. I think when you’re young it’s easy to believe that you’ll live forever, but I think that you’ve got to live to a certain degree like you’ll die tomorrow. Because if you’re more constrained, you won’t want to make certain choices. For example, I don’t want to go join the Peace Corps now; I’ve got two kids; I don’t want to go live in a mud hut in Sub-Saharan Africa trying to learn a language spoken by a small number of people in some corner of the world - that made more sense when I was young, and so I think young people should do what young people can do.