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The Nonconformist Class | AMERICA'S COOLEST SCHOOLS

Going green may finally be "normal," but some schools with eco-agendas remain miles from mainstream

By Tim McDonnell

Gaia University

Courtesy of Pesach Stadlin

Ask about the physical infrastructure of this self-described "un-institution," and prepare to be laughed at — it doesn't exist. "You need to let go of all your ideas of conventional universities," said cofounder Liora Adler. With no real campus (though its offices are in Tepoztlán, Mexico), no majors, and only a handful of scheduled classes, Gaia's take on sustainability calls for a wholesale redesigning of higher education. Adler asks, "Why would you have to go green in the first place if you didn't have an unsustainable system?"

Students earn degrees by documenting a project that involves an envy-inducing combination of world travel and social activism. A recent graduate flew to Chile and, between surfing trips, shot a documentary about how a proposed coal plant would upend a beachfront market town. So how does this merit an accredited bachelor's degree? The idea is that the projects force students to acquire skills and knowledge (grant writing, Spanish, economics, filmmaking, and so on) as they're needed, obviating, according to Adler, the entirety of some other universities' academic curricula.

Above, Gaia adviser Ethan Roland teaches orchard management in upstate New York.

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