Sipping fresh tree sap from a sugar maple on campus. Hammering together a canoe in the middle of Alverno’s courtyard. Taking in the sights, sounds and scents of the new campus greenhouse. For Thor Stolen, PhD, an assistant professor of education and director of special education programs in the School of Professional Studies, nature is the best classroom.
“There are treasures, especially in urban places, that need to be observed and kept open for more people to access,” he says.
Stolen sees himself as one of many members of the ecosystem of sustainability work at Alverno. And yet whenever a new environmental initiative bubbles up on campus, Stolen isn’t far away, whether he’s working with colleagues to design a native plant garden at a neighborhood middle school or stocking a bike repair toolbox that students can check out from the Alverno library or helping to launch a new certificate program to train teachers for nature-based preschools.
“There are a lot of other people who are doing this, and who are doing a lot,” says Stolen, who serves on the Alverno Commits to Sustainability (ACTS) Committee. “I’m really just jumping in on existing things and hopefully adding some value.”
Lifelong nature lover
Growing up in Bayside, Wis., Stolen explored the woods and creek near his home every chance he got, and he loved to camp, fish and hunt. As a middle schooler, he was inspired by school-sponsored outdoor experiences, including a backpacking trek, a visit to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, and a two-week bike ride from St. Louis to Milwaukee.
He strived to give his own students nature-based experiences during his 12 years of teaching bilingual special education in Milwaukee Public Schools. He took kids fishing and canoeing and partnered with Growing Power, Sweet Water Organics and the Urban Ecology Center to build growing and aquaponic systems with his students.
After Stolen earned his doctorate in urban education, a former student urged him to check out Alverno. Intrigued, he started researching Alverno’s Franciscan roots. “St. Francis is the nature guy,” he realized. It was one of just many signs that Alverno was the right place to plant himself.
When he first toured campus, he admired the rain garden, bioswales and green roof, and wondered: “Why doesn’t Alverno have a greenhouse?” He started talking up the idea with colleagues, including Rebekah Klinger, PhD, assistant professor of biology, and Jennifer Johanson, PhD, associate professor of environmental science and creator of the bioswales. He was ecstatic when the idea got the seed funding it needed to grow.
“I’m just grateful to be a part of it and have access to it,” he says of the Alverno Greenhouse. “I want to make it a learning laboratory so that education students can create more hands-on experiences and use it as like an educational lab. We can have lessons in the greenhouse and talk about how we can use plantings and environmental sustainability in our teaching practices.”
Even before the greenhouse opened, Stolen looked for other ways to connect his Alverno students to nature. One of his favorite springtime rituals is to show students how to tap a tree and sip sap together. “It’s a really fun, engaging experience for everybody to see the bounties of nature and to experience it together,” he says. He has also shown education students how they can use tree-tapping as a science lesson or an extension of a story in their own future classrooms. “If you actually do the thing that you’re reading about, comprehension is so much deeper,” he notes.
Stolen previously worked for a nonprofit as a boat-building instructor, and he’s brought that experience to his K-12 and Alverno students as well. “Boat building is another engaging way to do hands-on learning that’s nature based,” he explains. At Alverno, he teamed up with history professor John Savagian, PhD, who teaches Indigenous studies, and Linda Johnson-Dynek and others from the Art Department. Rather than make it part of a formal class, they opted to do it out in the courtyard “so anybody who wants to walk by and swing a hammer or use a saw can,” Stolen explains. Now Alverno has two beautiful canoes, and Stolen plans to build a third later this spring. The boats are available to students, faculty and staff, and Stolen hopes people consider using them in river cleanup efforts.
“It’s surprising how many people have not accessed waterways in Milwaukee,” he says. “We have such a treasure here to have so much water around us, so it’s my own personal passion to get more people out on the water.”
Q&A with Thor Stolen
When and why did you decide to become a teacher?
“I made the decision to be a teacher as I was living as a ski bum in Aspen, Colo. The skiing was fantastic, but then I read Fast Food Nation, and it made me realize it was kind of a selfish lifestyle of pure joy and fun for the 22- or 23-year-old that I was at the time. I wanted to have a little more purpose in life aside from just enjoying myself, so I went back to get my teaching certificate and then started teaching at Milwaukee Public Schools. I taught as a bilingual special educator in Milwaukee schools for 12 years.”
As a professor at a women’s college, what do you hope to empower your students to achieve?
“Since I work in the education department and I still value education, both as an instructor at Alverno and as somebody who’s still involved with Milwaukee Public Schools and other K-12 systems, I hope to empower our students to relish the teaching experience to make significant differences in their students’ lives. I hope to broaden access to education to more students through project-based learning and experiential education. And if I can get in a little bit of a sustainable lens, like an ecology/environmental piece, that’s an added bonus.”
What have you learned from Alverno students?
“Everything. It’s just such a wonderful place. My whole job, my being here, is because of an Alverno student. At the time, I was an adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UW-Whitewater, and Alverno was not on my radar. A former student of mine reached out to let me know how she was doing, and she told me about this wonderful place called Alverno, and how I would totally love the place. And so I came to visit her and had coffee at the Inferno and started doing more research. And all of a sudden, I fell in love with Alverno and the people here. The students are just continually impressing me with how inclusive, progressive and supportive they are, how much they advocate for one another and the general good of the population. I’m continually learning from students on all sorts of different levels. I really, really appreciate being here and being part of that system. … Alverno is a magical place and a magical experience.”