The Conway Curriculum
The Conway School is a small, ten-month graduate program in sustainable landscape planning and design. Conway grants a Master of Science in Ecological Design by the authority of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. The school is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (formerly the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc.).
The Master of Science program is structured around classes and the production of near-professional-level projects for residential clients, municipal agencies, and non-profit organizations. To receive the degree, a student must demonstrate an understanding of design theory, of natural and built environments, of design communication, and of professional practice.
The academic year at the Conway School is based on three core design projects. Learning is applied in one small site-scale and two community projects (at the larger regional scale in the winter and at the scale of a large site master plan in the spring). Project work requires the student to inventory and analyze site conditions, work with clients, integrate information, apply concepts, communicate to various audiences for a variety of purposes, and synthesize, condense, articulate, and illustrate designs for a particular site and client.
Incoming students typically have a range of educational, professional, and other life experiences. How much each student achieves while at Conway depends in part on these prior experiences. Each student is expected to demonstrate a base level of achievement in the areas listed below; some students will attain higher level of achievement, depending on interest, career goals, project requirements, and other factors.
Through project and non-project work, Conway students…
- Demonstrate the application of theoretical and conceptual knowledge at the same time as they learn concrete applied knowledge.
- Demonstrate the application of a process for approaching a novel design/planning challenge. This process includes a certain sequence of investigations and habits of mind (for example, not attempting to solve a problem at first sight and on intuition alone). It applies broadly across scales (site to neighborhood to region) and across landscape types (urban, suburban, rural, wild). It requires the ability to apply analysis (inventory + assessment) across scales and to understand the relationship between patterns and processes across those multiple scales.
- Demonstrate the application of methods for defining goals and visions, helping individuals and communities articulate common goals, incorporating input from diverse stakeholders.
- Demonstrate the application of technical skills for analyzing landscapes at multiple scales.
- Demonstrate the application of technical skills for mapping landscapes at multiple scales, from surveying with a transit to digital mapping with LIDAR and GIS data.
- Demonstrate the application of technical skills for altering landscapes at multiples scales, including grading and other site engineering techniques.
- Demonstrate the application of integrated graphical, written, and spoken communication skills, producing planning and design documents and presentations appropriate to a diversity of audiences and purposes.
- Demonstrate the application of industry-standard design and planning software.
- Demonstrate ecological whole-system thinking by asking questions about, drawing links between, and making recommendations about the relationships between cultural practices, the built environment, geology, soils, hydrology, topography, vegetation, wildlife, sun, and other environmental conditions and processes.
- Demonstrate intellectual flexibility, emotional resilience, the ability to collaborate, and perseverance in the face of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge.
- Demonstrate the application of ecological design and planning principles to critical social challenges, including climate change and social and environmental injustice.
The Conway School has a high program-completion rate; almost all students who enter the program in September graduate in June. In the past ten years, the school has enrolled 170 students and 166 have graduated with a master’s degree, a 98% graduation rate.
Classes (A Typical Week at Conway)
Students learn from faculty, from each other, from guest professionals in many fields, and from their explorations of their project sites and the communities where those projects are embedded. The environment is personal, collaborative, and rigorous—learning is driven by motivated students working for real communities to solve real and pressing problems.
The Conway program is built around those real projects for real clients. The projects raise issues, questions, and challenges—from technical questions about site engineering, to ethical issues about community involvement or wise use of resources, to practical questions about how resilience can be built into systems in the face of uncertain futures—that drive the classes, discussions, and field and studio work that make up the rest of the fully integrated, multidisciplinary program. Class assignments—graphic, technical, and written—support project work.
We’re small. That means we can change the schedule on a moment’s notice–load up the van and go on a field trip to see what happens when a dam collapses; visit a project site during a community street festival; add a class to introduce new software that suddenly became available.
We do, though, have a regular weekly schedule of classes. Classes in design theory, graphics, computer skills (such as InDesign and GIS), site engineering, and humanities support and draw from students’ experiences in the projects. At least once a week, an outside expert in a relevant topic–for example, environmental law, green building design, wildlife habitat, or environmental justice–gives a lecture at the school. They often stay for the group meal that follows, and sometimes spend time in the studio to talk with students about projects. Faculty go from desk to desk on studio days for individual and team consultation. After the faculty go home, students continue to learn in the studio from each other.
The week ends with a class field session led by an ecology professor to a nearby place of interest such as a constructed wetland, a quaking bog, an innovative parking lot, or a dam removal site. These field trips take full advantage of learning from the wealth of diverse landscapes in Western Massachusetts.
A typical week might look like this:
- Digital design class (morning)
- Ecology class (afternoon)
- Ecological design workshop class with guest speaker or site visit (afternoon)
- Group meal
- Graphics class (morning)
- Studio (rest of day), including time to make site visits
- Studio (morning)
- Student presentations on their current project progress (afternoon)
- Site design/engineering class (morning)
- Studio (afternoon)
- Humanities class (morning)
- Ecology field work (afternoon)
Each Conway student works on three projects, one per term. In the fall, students have their own site design project, typically a couple of acres or less—one student siting a new home on an undeveloped site, adapting a built site to new owners or uses, designing an educational center or market garden for a small farm, or working on a pocket park or small land trust property.
Through this first project, students learn the basics of the design process: site reconnaissance and assessment, defining/refining the project goals and client needs, and exploring solutions that work with the natural systems on site.
Small teams of students work on—and are responsible for managing—winter and spring projects. Winter projects are larger land use and city/regional planning projects, such as a food security plan for a town or region, a management plan for a land trust property or regional park, a campus master plan, or a farmland preservation strategy.
Spring projects are master planning projects, such as a streetscape design, a park or recreational facility, or a restoration plan for a former industrial site.
Students also learn from their regular exposure to other student projects—30 to 35 different projects at three distinct scales. All are real projects for real clients. Students are also exposed in this way to potential employers in land trusts, town and regional planning departments, community organizations, and non-profit agencies. They gain experience working with diverse communities.
Students give weekly presentations to faculty and classmates, becoming more and more comfortable articulating the narrative of their projects and making compelling arguments for particular design and planning solutions.
Near the end of each term, students give formal presentations before a panel of three outside professionals—experienced designers, planners, and ecologists—who offer advice that students can then incorporate in the last two weeks of the term.
The Conway program teaches students an iterative, ecologically-informed design process, while also exposing students to a wide range of topics related to sustainability. The school’s small size and combination of full time and part-time faculty working in the field allows it to integrate new topics into the curriculum. For example, over the course of the past ten years the school has worked on several food system projects, in response to increasing global concerns about access to food and the impact of industrial agriculture on the land.
Fill out the form below to download a short piece about the application of landscape design and planning to food systems work.