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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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Workshop challenges high school students with a call to action

By Eddy Ball

Sarah Hassan of Riverside High School

Sarah Hassan of Riverside High School was one of several from Durham County, N.C. schools. A few of the students from more distant schools in Johnston and Guilford counties spent as long as 90 minutes getting to and from the workshop each day. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bono Sen, Ph.D.

Along with co-organizing the workshop, Sen was also a presenter. She is the EHP science education and outreach program manager and an associate member of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) . (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Students attending the second annual NIEHS/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Climate Change Workshop June 11-15 got something more than they might have expected from their learning experience. Along with presentations by experts, the high schoolers were challenged to reach out to students and faculty at their schools this fall, and given direction in designing effective strategies for raising awareness, by veteran environmental organizer Johanna de Graffenreid of the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE).

To drive home the workshop’s call to action, workshop organizers Bono Sen, Ph.D., of NIEHS, and Kelly Leovic of EPA scheduled de Graffenreid as the opening and closing speaker at the workshop. In between de Graffenreid’s opening session Monday morning and her course in Project Planning 101, the students heard from, and interacted with, specialists in climate change and health from NIEHS, EPA, and elsewhere, on a range of climate change-related topics (see text box).

“We learned a lot from last year,” Sen said of the debut workshop in 2011 (see story). “This year, I bet the whole cohort [of students] will engage in follow-up activities.” Sen pointed to the addition of more movement and tours to the schedule, as well as the immediacy of much of the workshop content.

According to student evaluations, Sen and Leovic’s planning paid off. As one student wrote, “I will pass on my knowledge to members in our environmental club, and this program propelled me to participate in more green programs.”

As timely as the evening news

Reinforcing the workshop’s call to action was the timeliness of several of the presentations. NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., discussed efforts by NIEHS and other federal groups to make health a focus of sustainable development efforts underway at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (see story). “Health is one of those areas where we can really do something about this incredible impasse we have on the international scene,” Balbus told attendees, as he described the economic benefits of improved health from climate change mitigation.

The students were also treated to a lively presentation June 14 on “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast,” by East Carolina University geologist Stanley Riggs, Ph.D., a representative of the N.C. Coastal Resource Commission’s Science Panel on Coast Hazards. Riggs discussed his group’s position on a possible one-meter increase in sea level by 2100, and his opposition to a controversial bill passed June 13 by the N.C. Senate to limit predictions to eight inches for purposes of planning coastal development. 

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De Graffenreid’s closing session June 15 combined timeliness and a call to action, with a module on hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Like Rio+20 and sea level rise on the coast, fracking was in the news that week, as N.C. legislators conferred over different versions of a bill to legalize the practice in the state. The EPA building in Research Triangle Park (RTP), N.C., where the workshop was held, sits on the edge of a Triassic Basin shale oil deposit that runs from Durham, N.C., to the South Carolina border.

The impact on participants

Students evaluated activities each day and, as the workshop came to a close, they had an opportunity to comment on the entire program. Some participants offered suggestions about how to tweak the workshop schedule and suggested activities, but the students’ comments were overwhelmingly supportive of the experience. A majority wrote that they would attend the workshop again, even it didn’t feature the modest stipend the program offered this year, which was made possible through funding primarily by Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP).

“[The workshop] completely changed my views,” wrote one student. “I had no idea climate change was so urgent.” Another student agreed, writing, “[I] learned a lot about the actual science and policies regarding climate change, and I feel more aware and conscious about how my actions affect climate change.”

Just as organizers hoped, the students were inspired by the workshop’s call to action and emphasis on planning and communication. “I now know a project I can do at my school to help our planet go greener,” one participant concluded. Others listed specific projects, including composting, conservation of water and electricity, and installation of solar panels.

Kelly Leovic

In her introduction to Riggs’ talk on sea level change, as well as in her presentations and interaction with students, Leovic’s enthusiasm was evident throughout the workshop. Leovic is the manager of the EPA Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program, as well as EPA environmental outreach programs in RTP, and a member of the Environmental Cutting Edge Speakers Series Committee, sponsor of the talk. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

2011 climate change workshop participant Kelsey Bennett

Bennett returned to this year’s workshop to discuss her project at Jordan High School in Durham, N.C. She is shown above making a presentation last summer on electric cars. (Photo courtesy of Ian Boudreau and EPA)

Students attendees at the second annual NIEHS/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Climate Change Workshop

The students worked together to move representations of nuclear rods into a protected area. To succeed, two or three people needed to work together to tip the bucket and put the rods where they belonged. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Willa Chen of Chapel Hill High School

By the end of the week, the students were used to working together on problem-solving activities and looking forward to getting back to their home schools to build environmental awareness projects. Shown above, Willa Chen, center, of Chapel Hill High School, laughed with teammates, as they discussed their projects. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Balbus, M.D.

Although Balbus gave one of the longer presentations, he kept the students’ attention with his outline of the cobenefits that would accrue from mitigating the health impact of climate change, and his ongoing involvement in the international discourse about climate. As one student wrote, “He’s really been there.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Schelp talking to students

After leading the students on a tour of the NIEHS facility, Schelp, right, talked about environmental research and how it relates to the lives of members of his audience. Schelp is the OSED special assistant for community engagement and outreach. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ed Kang

Kang created a teamwork exercise for the students based on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011. “If you cross the lines [in the real situation],” he said, “you’re dead.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Johanna de Graffenreid

De Graffenreid’s pace was steady, but informal, as she moved through a description of energy issues, the ACE network, and the kinds of programs students at other schools nationwide have created. She called the students climate communicators and emphasized the value of messaging with a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Climate Change brochure created by students

One outcome of student collaboration at the workshop was this brochure the students put together to bring home a message about the very real threat to health and wellbeing posed by rising sea levels.

A cast of experts on climate change and health

Along with Sen, Leovic, and the keynote speakers, a number of experts from NIEHS, EPA, and other organizations shared their perspectives during the workshop. The topics ranged from solar cookstoves to the NIH GuLF STUDY. Presenters included the following people:

  • NIEHS volunteers —public affairs specialist Ed Kang; former postdoctoral fellow Linh Pham, Ph.D.; outreach specialist John Schelp; postdoctoral fellow Jim Aloor, Ph.D.; postdoctoral fellow Kym Gowdy, Ph.D.; NIH Summer Internship Program coordinator Debbie Wilson; and epidemiologist Richard Kwok, Ph.D.
  • EPA volunteers — remote sensing and geospatial researcher Drew Pilant, Ph.D.; atmospheric modeling researcher Prakash Bhave, Ph.D.; environmentally preferable purchasing specialist Wanda Allen; air quality planning and standards specialist Meredith Lassiter, Ph.D.; physical scientist Rebecca Dodder, Ph.D.; energy manager Greg Eades; postdoctoral research fellow Tyler Felgenhauer, Ph.D.; environmental specialist Joseph Mangino; outreach specialist Rachel Clark; sustainable building specialist Pete Schubert; analyst Kathy Kaufman; and sustainability advisor Melissa McCullough.
  • Community volunteers — North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University professor Manny Reyes, Ph.D.; North Carolina State University professor Ryan Boyles, Ph.D.; Durham Technical Community College instructor Jane Norton; and 2011 climate change workshop participant Kelsey Bennett.

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