November 30, 2015

Guest Column: ‘Making’ an education

By Doug Webster

Vermont students are making their mark in the “maker” movement. At this year’s Champlain Maker Faire, 11-year-old Noah Schwartz stood in front of dozens of people, including a group of angel investors on motorcycles, FreshTracks Road Pitch Riders, to pitch “Noah’s Fizzy Maple Lemonade.” Noah, competing against those who graduated college and beyond, won first place.

Noah started his lemonade business to help fund the air-compressed rocket business he began at age 8, after attending the first Champlain Maker Faire. Noah’s compressed air rockets allow kids to make their own rocket out of paper and tape. He has been nominated for the NBC show Little Big Shots with Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Harvey. “Noah did a better job pitching than most adults,” said the Road Pitch Riders.

Never heard of a Maker Faire? No idea what “making” means? Making is creating, producing, crafting, shaping, tinkering, composing and building. It sits at the intersection of art and science, and at the crossroads of technology and design. It engages people of all ages, creates solutions to real-life problems and stimulates growth of the “innovation force.” It is as much about people as it is technology.

For our youth, making fosters a culture of imagination, innovation and growth, allowing them to personalize their educational experiences. It allows them to connect to the adult world with a common intellectual mission. Making offers a platform for collaboration, multiple perspectives, initiative, persistence and expanding a child’s natural curiosity. It allows students to transform content versus simply reciting it. Making provides the “pull” in learning versus the “push” often associated with standardized testing and regulations. Making provides youth a forum for exhibiting, presenting, selling, collaborating, and can be a “sport for the mind.”

In short, making is cool.

This year’s Champlain Maker Faire included activities that address all aspects of the Maker spectrum:

Igniting interest of youth in STEM and maker projects

Exhibits of experienced makers where many commented on the increased sophistication of projects

Maker-to-market, including FreshTracks Road Pitch and CMF Adopt a Maker Pitch.

In addition to the second year of the ChampBot Challenge, the fair included a new Drone Derby, a Swap-Stitch-Make workshop sponsored by Vermont Teddy Bear, and a Robot Battle. There were more than 50 maker exhibits. These are things that get kids excited about STEM and STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). We want kids to say, “Yes, I can do that!”

ChampBot is a great example of creating with form and function. Teams are scored based on performance and aesthetics. Most school teams take pride in their ChampBots and display them at their school.

Joe Chase, science instructor at Essex High School said, “Making, sharing and reflecting show the deepest levels of knowledge, and the Maker Faire has them all.”

Although the Champlain Maker Faire and Rutland Maker Faire are for all ages, there is an upcoming Maker Faire specifically for students, teachers and parents to come together and share their creations. The Aiken K-12 Maker Faire is scheduled for Nov. 21 at UVM Davis Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. See And, if you are interested in starting a school maker faire in your community, contact the Agency at or register at

Doug Webster founded and produces the Champlain Maker Faire. He is past president of the National Association for Workforce Improvement, producer of the RETN TV Series, “A Renewed Culture of Innovation” and “Makers on Screen” and he works to strengthen STEAM education for the Vermont Agency of Education.

Perkins takes historical helm

Stephen Perkins

Stephen Perkins

By Karen Sturtevant

Observer correspondent

It is rare to meet a person that is as passionate about Vermont’s preservation and heritage as Stephen Perkins, the new executive director of the Vermont Historical Society and a Williston resident. The position fits him well, complementing his expertise in cultural history study and non-profit management, as well as his experience as director of development and communications at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington.

“ECHO is a wonderful place,” Perkins said. “Being able to engage people in new and exciting ways is a goal of mine. I hope I can take that with me.”

Perkins’ new role begins Dec. 1. He will oversee The Vermont Historical Society, which operates the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier, next to the Capitol building, and the Leahy Library and Vermont Heritage Galleries in Barre.

“One of my goals for myself and the staff is to have every single person that visits the Capitol building also visit the Vermont History Museum,” Perkins said.

The Museum exhibits the largest collection of Vermont cultural artifacts.

“We learn what happened from yesterday back to the Abenaki culture,” Perkins said.

Preserving Vermont’s heritage since 1838, the society boasts the national award-winning exhibit, “Freedom and Unity: One Idea, Many Stories,” where visitors time travel to the 17th century through current day.

“What’s cool about that visit is that it’s really comprehensive, like a full-size Abenaki wigwam, a log house kids can go into and a ski lift within the exhibit,” Perkins said. “It’s very interactive history.”

Located in the Spaulding school building in Barre, the Vermont Heritage Galleries showcase special displays including exhibitions about the Civil War, the growth of Barre from 1880 – 1940 and artifacts weird and wonderful representing Green Mountain history. The Leahy Library, located on the second floor, is open to the public four days a week. Rare pamphlets, letters, maps and books dating as far back as 1770 are found there. The library has the largest printed genealogical collection in Vermont.

Along with collections, resources and activities offered by the Vermont Historical Society, it also sponsors Vermont History Day in affiliation with National History Day. In 2015, more than 200 students from Vermont schools participated in the statewide program competing for awards and prizes. Perkins’ love of history started early. When he was in the sixth grade at Williston Central School, he was a participant.

Perkins, an eighth-generation Vermonter who is the fourth generation to live on his family’s Williston homestead, said, “What I want is for people to stay inspired by Vermont’s heritage. The first call is to the Vermont Historical Society. We all love this state and live here for a reason. We all contribute to the story in this state. And that’s really, really powerful.”

For more information on the Vermont History Museum and Vermont Heritage Galleries current exhibits and hours of operation, visit

New pastor to help Williston Federated Church transition

Observer photo by Stephanie Choate Rev. Randy Besta began Nov. 8 as interim reverend at Williston Federated Church.  Besta said he rarely stands behind the pulpit when preaching.

Observer photo by Stephanie Choate
Rev. Randy Besta began Nov. 8 as interim reverend at Williston Federated Church. Besta said he rarely stands behind the pulpit when preaching.

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Williston Federated Church’s new spiritual leader traded one traveling life for another.

After a career jetting around the globe in business consulting, Besta said he heeded his calling to join the church. He has spent the last 10 years traveling the United States and Canada as a transitional pastor, helping churches bridge the gap between long-term leaders.

“I go to churches for up to two years in the period of time between long-term ministers,” Besta said. “I help them say goodbye and deal with any challenges, tensions or issues. I help them figure out who they are and get ready for whoever is going to come next.”

Reverend Joan O’Gorman retired from her post in June, after nearly eight years with the church.

Besta began on Nov. 8, and will be with the church for 18 months to two years. He and his spouse, Jim Rombough—along with their dog, Barney, and cat, Tucker—have begun settling into Williston.

Besta said his role is to “help the church heal from Reverend Joan’s leaving, and help them prepare for a new minister, so when the new minister comes in, everything is perfectly smooth,” he said.

With the tight bond that frequently develops between minister and churchgoer, Besta said there are often parishioners who need soothing.

“Whenever a longer-term minister leaves the church, there are people who are grieving,” he said. “It’s part of my job to help them go through the healing process. It’s losing a friendship.”

Sally Stockwell Metro, church lay leader who helped with Besta’s selection, said the church was looking for an interim pastor to help members prepare to seek a new long-term pastor, and Besta has helped numerous churches grow and define their missions.

“He is a humorous man who delivers sermons that speak to us about living as active Christians in today’s stressful world,” she wrote in an email to the Observer. “We look forward to working with him to determine our goals in the future and to be current and meaningful to people looking for their spiritual home.”

Besta, who is Canadian, has always had a strong faith. He was an alter boy in the Roman Catholic church as a child, then, like many people, took time away from the church in his teens and 20s.

Later in life, he joined his current denomination. Williston Federated Church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church denominations.

“It’s who I am theologically,” he said. “Their beliefs match my beliefs.”

His faith led him to leave his consulting career.

“It was a call, a sense that I needed to do it,” he said. “The longer I was in consulting, the more I grew to detest it.”

Besta’s religious philosophy focuses on the needs of others.

“We are the hands and feet and heart of Christ in our world, let’s go out and make a difference,” he said.

Besta invited all residents to come by the church for Sunday services.

“The United Church has a slogan, ‘No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,’” he said. “That’s one of the principles I try to live by and see that our church does as well.”

And, if anyone happens to be selling a motorcycle, he’s in the market.

Williston protestors reflect on lifetimes of activism

Observer file photo by Al Frey Activists Doug Smith (left) and Ulrike von Motke sit chained to a replica pipeline in Williston in September.  The six arrested, all grandparents, said they were supported by a group of young protesters who stood with them.

Observer file photo by Al Frey
Activists Doug Smith (left) and Ulrike von Motke sit chained to a replica pipeline in Williston in September. The six arrested, all grandparents, said they were supported by a group of young protesters who stood with them.

By Kristina M. Goslin

Observer correspondent

Karen Starr’s first sit-in was in a potato field in northern Maine. It was getting dark, and the farmer kept right on plowing around the protesting pickers with his tractor. The pickers didn’t budge. Rumor had it the land owner wasn’t going to pay them their bonus at the end of the harvest season. The unpicked potatoes were going to rot and the pickers knew it. So did the farmer. They got their bonus. Starr was 12 years old.

Fifty years later, Starr, who lives in Plainfield, and five others ranging in age from 62 to 84 chained themselves to a metal fence before dawn on a chilly September morning, aiming to stop work on a controversial gas pipeline project in Williston.

“I’ve always felt a responsibility to speak up when I see things that need to change,” Starr said, reflecting on what has motivated her through half a century of protesting. Back on that potato farm when she was just a child, Starr felt the injustice of being stiffed fair pay for honest work, especially since many of her fellow pickers were children of indigenous people or migrants who depended heavily on the money to buy school supplies and other essentials. “That experience was the perfect example that people have the power we give them, and we won,” Starr said. “That made quite an impression on me.”

A variety of experiences and motivations over the decades brought each of the six protesters to that chain-link fence on Sept. 21, but a common thread tied them together: the desire to connect with all generations and share the responsibility for action. “Here we are, grandparents and great-grandparents, getting arrested,” said Fred Wolfe, the 84-year-old great grandfather living in Strafford, Vt. “But 20 young people in their 20s and early 30s were there supporting us. That’s very meaningful to me.”

Wolfe doesn’t have as long an arrest record as some of his fellow protesters. In fact, he didn’t log his first hours in jail until 2001. He had taken his granddaughter to Washington, D.C. to see him block the entrance of the Department of Energy in protest of the ANWR (Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge) drilling project in Alaska. Wolfe and 21 others were arrested. “As I was led away in handcuffs past my granddaughter,” Wolfe remembered, “she turned to me and said ‘thank you.’”

Wolfe, who sports a snowy white beard, said he cares deeply about kids, and has often played the role of Santa Claus in Strafford. Wolfe’s relatively new involvement with active protesting is inspired by his descendants when they question how his generation dealt with controversial issues. “I always say, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something,’” Wolfe said. “Now when they ask me, ‘Grandpa, why didn’t you do something?’ I can honestly say ‘I did.’”

And it’s this dialogue between the generations that serves as an inspiration for many of the older activists. Karen Starr feels there is an opportunity to bridge the gaps when people of all ages converge to represent a common belief. “We have a very strange society these days,” she said, referring to what she sees as an artificial separation by age. And yet both ends of the generational curve are being admonished by some sectors of society for participating in protests. “It’s lovely that we’ve found each other,” Starr said referring to the grandparents and 20-somethings. “They’re being told that [the activism] is a stage and they’ll grow out of it, and we’re being told we should act our age!”

As for growing out of social activism, it seems for these folks it was more a matter of growing into it. Nina Swaim, 77, of Sharon, credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s. “My mother was very active in the Vermont Yankee protests,” Swaim said. “She got to know the police very well.”

Swaim was also quick to point out that the local law enforcement have always been understanding and respectful of the protesters, while still enforcing the laws. When reflecting on how Swaim felt about her own arrest record, most recently during the pipeline protest in Williston, she said she was not afraid of being arrested. “I didn’t do this for fun,” Swaim said. “It was pretty scary. But Vermont police are very, very thoughtful people.”

Nina Swaim is arrested following a September protest in Williston.  Protesters said they have always found Vermont police to be thoughtful and caring.

Nina Swaim is arrested following a September protest in Williston. Protesters said they have always found Vermont police to be thoughtful and caring.

For her, participating in protests that articulate her strong beliefs on a variety of environmental issues helped her feel she was making a difference; “I want to keep Vermont a strong and courageous state.”

Strength and courage were not lacking among the grandparent activists that turned out among much younger supporters that September morning. Douglas Smith, Swaim’s husband, is legally blind. “We all have our ‘maturity issues,’” Smith joked. “But why should that stop us?”

Smith has been touting environmental protection since his time as a teaching fellow at Harvard University in 1968. In the early 70s, he started his shift into the world of international energy consulting. “I realized we need to do things sustainably,” Smith recalled. “And that term wasn’t as overused then.”

The protesters also credit each other with being sources of inspiration. Ulrike von Moltke found her way to activism when she met Nina Swaim at a rally for the recent Occupy movements. Swaim was giving a training on non-violent civil disobedience. “I have not been a protester for most of my life,” von Moltke said. “I was very depressed by what I was seeing and when Occupy came around it was my chance to join that movement. Nina trained me for civil disobedience, I got arrested and before I knew it I was an activist.”

Nina Swaim of Sharon credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s.

Nina Swaim of Sharon credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s.

So, at 71 years old, von Moltke and her five friends willingly chained themselves to a replica gas pipeline, which in turn was chained to the fence surrounding the worksite. Sitting in fold-up lawn chairs and covered in sleeping bags and parkas, the grandparents kept up their spirits and did what many had been doing for decades. And despite a variety of health concerns, the protesters held their ground. Fred Wolfe has problems with both rotator cuffs, which the police were made aware of. “They handcuffed me in the front instead of the back,” Wolfe said. “They were very caring.”

For all of these protesters, the thought of advancing age being a hindrance to activism was far from their minds. “With age comes wisdom,” Wolfe said. “We can all be involved. You can be in a wheelchair and still do your part.”

Editor’s Note: Nina Swaim passed away suddenly, a few days after she was interviewed for this article. Her family feels this is a fitting tribute to honor what Nina felt so passionately about.

Student tree planting

IMG_0022 IMG_0024 IMG_0025 IMG_0027 IMG_0010 IMG_0011 IMG_0012 IMG_0018 IMG_0019 IMG_0003 IMG_0004 IMG_0008 IMG_0009 [Read more…]

FAP craft show

DSC_0737 DSC_0740 DSC_0744 DSC_0751 DSC_0761 DSC_0767 [Read more…]

“Our Brand is Crisis”

Dirty Politics, as Usual

1 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


The inherent cynicism that detracts from the entertainment value of director David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand is Crisis” recalls the stark admonition blurted out by Jack Nicholson’s no-nonsense Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in “A Few Good Men” (1992). The gyrene points to the moral contradictions that oft define our species, assuring that we “can’t handle the truth.” This fictionalization inspired by Rachel Boynton’s documentary about political strategy in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election may be a little too true.

[Read more…]

Holiday scams starting already

With the holiday giving season approaching, a new survey from the AARP Fraud Watch Network found that 70 percent of consumers failed a quiz about how to stay safe from common holiday scams, and many are regularly engaging in risky behaviors that could leave them at risk of being victimized by con artists.

A report, “Beware the Grinch: Consumers At Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays,” details AARP’s polling of consumers regarding the most common holiday scams, including those related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries and use of public Wi-Fi. [Read more…]

Required IRA and 401(k) withdrawal rules for retirees

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you give me the details on required IRA and 401(k) distributions? I turned 70 this year, and want to be clear on what’s required, and when I’ll have to do it.

—Planning Ahead

Dear Planning, [Read more…]

Healthy Food for Two: Quick and light lunch or dinner

By Ania Robertson

If you are not a slave to a pasta smothered in a sauce and you feel like switching up your mundane daily meals, you will enjoy this light meal that can also be a great deck for a grilled chicken.

Edamame it is just a fancy name for boiled yang green soybeans, and the real secret is that they are much yummier than they sound. The complete protein in edamame makes it an ideal food for vegetarians and vegans. The fresh vegetable soybeans contain about 36 percent protein, which is 86 percent higher than mature soybeans. Edamame is low fat, packed with vitamins B, C and K, as well as copper, calcium, iron, folate, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous. Also, it has anti-inflammatory properties. [Read more…]