AcademicsOct 13, 2023

updated Nov 20, 2023

Dr. Chris Himes, EarthShips, & Fiber-dying in New Mexico

Leonhardt Teaching Chair and Paternotte Travel Grant Recipient brings learning from the Southwest to MHS December 7

In so many respects, the American Southwest is about as different from the Berkshires as a place could be. MHS Director of Engineering & Technology/STEAM Coordinator Dr. Christopher Himes discovered that more than a decade ago, while doing research at the University of New Mexico and living in Albuquerque.

“I was awestruck by the landscape, culture, and overall environment,” explains Chris. “I felt like the environment forced me to consider my relationship to the place, and I lived in a deeper way than I have had to in the past. Also, culturally the region is very different from other places I have lived. All of this creates a lot of inspiration.”

Indeed, Chris’s experience at UNM and subsequent visits to the Southwest inspired plans for a return to the region, so he can dig deeper into concepts to be shared with students on Holmes Road. As the recipient of the 2022-23 Paternotte Family Faculty Travel and Study Endowment Fund GrantEstablished by Nancy Brewster Paternotte ’65 in 2015, on the occasion of her 50th reunion, the fund supports faculty professional development through travel., Chris is traveling to New Mexico in June to explore the Southwest’s traditional fiber arts and its sustainable housing, two topics he can incorporate into his STEAM-based curriculum.

Not only is Chris the recipient of the latest Paternotte grant, but he has also been named the most recent Leonhardt Family Teaching Chair. Bestowed every four years, the Leonhardt Chair recognizes an MHS faculty member who possesses the highest personal and professional ethics, who has made a lifelong commitment to young people, whose skillful instruction enlivens the experience of learning, and whose wise counsel and guidance to students extend beyond the classroom. Faculty, staff, and students submit nominations for the honor.

“The Southwest has a rich history that intersects with new and traditional innovations,” explains Chris, who made the trip with his family — MHS English Teacher Emily Pulfer-Terino ’97 and their son Lyric. “Many of the issues that will be faced by our students in the future will be environmentally driven, and I feel that the concepts I can introduce will help the role of adaptability and sustainability in facing a changing environmental ecology.”

For the first part of his trip, Chris visited and took classes at the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, north of Santa Fe. There, he studied the mechanics of large loom weaving, project design, and dying fibers using plant-based pigments.

“Fiber-dying is a form of technology and is also fundamentally tied to chemistry,” he notes, and the principles can be extended to other disciplines. “From the way the pigments are extracted from natural sources and then fixed into wool is all about conducting some type of chemical experiment. My hope is to eventually guide students in making their own dyes from plants in the Berkshires.”

For the second part of the trip, Chris visited northern New Mexico’s “EarthShips,” self-sustaining homes that are made from recycled materials and designed to collect and use resources as efficiently as possible. The homes are fully independent structures that operate with passive solar heating, produce electricity, collect and re-use water, and have self-contained gardens.

Chris and his family stayed in one of the EarthShips(!), helping build his understanding of their design, esthetics, and sustainability — all of which he can bring to the Hopper Innovation Lab. The concepts, he adds, have been incorporated into the Department’s Engineering and Ready SET Go courses, but they can be expanded upon as students explore systems and consider solutions to challenges.

“The EarthShips are strange-looking and wonderful structures that really inspire the imagination,” Chris adds. “Fundamentally, engineering is problem-solving through design thinking. I believe this experience will inspire new ways of thinking, and I hope that sharing this perspective can help our students to think differently about what a home can do and what it can look like.”

He believes so strongly about MHS and always puts students at the forefront. He strives to make sure our MHS program is unique and allows students to explore their interests, meet high standards, and achieve their goals. He always asks WHY. Why are we doing something in a particular way? Does it actually benefit our students? Could we adapt something that might work better for them?

Leonhardt Family Teaching Chair Nomination

Chris expects his experiences in the Southwest will impact the students’ experiences in the MHS classroom in several ways.

“Each of these pursuits is fundamentally about project design and management,” he explains. “This is an essential and ubiquitous skill in engineering and tech. Further, each area has subcomponents/subsystems to ‘build’ a larger artifact. Secondly, each project can be redefined and scaled to fit the MHS campus and the environment of the Berkshires. This highlights another important aspect of design, which is understanding constraints.”

We look forward to hearing more about Chris’s trip when he presents to the MHS community on Thursday, December 7!

About the Patternotte Grant

The Paternotte Family Faculty Travel and Study Endowment Fund was established by Nancy Brewster Paternotte ’65 in 2015, on the occasion of her 50th reunion, to support faculty professional development at MHS. Miss Hall’s faculty may apply for this annual grant to travel domestically or abroad during the summer or school vacation to further knowledge in their field, to explore new developments in teaching methods or instructional technology, to gain added expertise in their field, or to train in a new instructional area that will enrich the curriculum.

The recipient of the Paternotte Family Faculty Travel and Study grant will be asked to embed learning from their travel experience into the classroom, to publicize this work through a formal presentation to the school community in the fall semester, and to share this experience in an article for school publications and web communications.