Monthly Archives: April 2014

In a Changing State: What is Next For National Parks?

Arch at Yellowstone National Park with the well-known saying. Photo courtesy of Madeline Hirshan

Arch at Yellowstone National Park with the well-known saying. Photo courtesy of Madeline Hirshan

There is so much uncertainty in the future facing national parks as a result of global warming. If preserved areas such as national parks are at risk to dramatic transformation due to climate change, what can that mean for unprotected areas? Previous posts have described the current situation, the history, and the wildlife at risk in various national parks in the United States. In a conversation with National Park Service Ecologist Tom Rodhouse, who was one of the researchers on the “Pikas in Peril” project, he said, that it is a “time of great change and soul searching.” Tom continued to state that, “climate is highly dynamic.” He explained the significance between a highly dynamic, ever-changing climate in combination with national parks which are considered “static” entities.

Efforts have been taken by the National Park Service to cope with and mitigate pressing climate issues. The National Park Service had developed a “Climate Change Action Plan” for the years 2012 to 2014. In this document, the Park Service lays out the major issues pertaining to a changing climate, prioritizes the most pressing issues, and comes up with responses and mitigation strategies. The plan calls for an interdisciplinary approach to climate change along with two methods of coping with climate change including, “adaptation” and “mitigation.” National parks serve many purposes and in light of climate change, they serve as models for other areas, establishing methods and ideas as a foundation. Continue reading

Sustainability and Happiness: Next Steps for the United States

The conversations surrounding the link between sustainability and happiness by the international community most significantly the UN all have important implications for future policy and conversations. In fact, as recently as three years ago in 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution specifically, “calling on countries to include happiness in their measurements of progress.” A prime model for UN member nations is the country of Bhutan, who has adopted a seemingly unusual measure of well-being called Gross National Happiness.

While Bhutan’s commitment came from the top, its government, the U.S. will need a grassroots, bottom up approach.

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Diverse Motivations Expand Environmental Education’s Reach

Sources of urban EE are diverse, but partnerships can align the goals of different organizations to empower students.

Middle schoolers at Van Nest Academy carry out student-led experiments on water quality in small groups. Photo courtesy of

Middle schoolers at Van Nest Academy carry out student-led experiments on water quality in small groups. Photo courtesy of

In the East Bronx, a 20 minute walk from the Bronx River, students at Van Nest Academy public middle school practice “student-led investigation” as they design and carry out scientific research on water quality.

“There’s some kids that really thrive outside,” said 7th grade science teacher Boris Lazarev. “When they get outside and they’re doing hands-on stuff, they’re really enlivened.”

Lazarev is not the first teacher to see a change in students when they get involved in local nature. In the last decade, studies have shown that outdoor activities like environmental education (EE) decrease ADHD symptoms, serve as a stress buffer, and improve self-esteem and mood. In a 1997-2003 Washington State study, students at schools that prioritized environmental science performed consistently better on standardized tests for math and English than students at schools without an environmental focus.

But Lazarev doesn’t define his work in class solely as EE. Primarily, he teaches science. “The goal is for them to get more critical thinking skills,” he said.

Van Nest Academy’s partner organization for its science program, Urban Advantage, is focused more on science education than on the environment specifically. Urban Advantage is an NYC initiative in which organizations like the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, and the American Museum of Natural History partner with schools to connect urban students to the scientific resources in their communities. In the case of VNA, Urban Advantage provides professional development for teachers and materials for water testing.

Urban Advantage employs EE with the aim of creating “hands-on investigations that engage [students] in science as a way of thinking and investigating rather than simply as a body of knowledge,” according to its website.

VNA also partners with the Bronx River Alliance, an environmental organization committed to protecting and restoring the Bronx River as a resource for the communities around it. The Alliance works with VNA to get students out on the river and participating in much-needed water quality tests.

The Alliance’s Chief Educator Damian Griffin has yet another motivation for his EE work in the South Bronx—increasing young people’s comfort in their environment. Many South Bronx students are recent immigrants from more rural areas, he said. Griffin wants to help these young people access the nature in New York City: “It’s still here, you just have to push to find it.”

People and organizations who provide city students with environmental knowledge often describe their motivations outside the realm of EE. Some are invested in the broader concept of science education. Some want to connect students to their communities. Partnerships that pool resources can bring together organizations with different missions—but despite varying motivations, these collaborations help foster programs that encourage critical thinking, teach science, and involve students in their environments.

Connections between schools and other groups are vital in countering a lack of resources and support for EE in city schools. Teachers in a 2012 study of a Bronx after school program said there was not enough time or money for students to take field trips or teachers to incorporate environmental learning into the everyday curriculum.

And pushback from other departments can be a challenge. “A lot of math and English teachers don’t like kids to go out [on science field trips] because they don’t want to lose that time with them,” Lazarev said. “They have to cover a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time.”

The key at VNA, Lazarev said, is administrative support for the science program. “The principal encourages all these field trips—a lot of principals don’t want teachers to leave the building,” he explained.

Urban Advantage provides training and materials to make field trips valuable and garner in-school support for the VNA science program.

Looking Forward

Without the partnerships and administrative encouragement that bolster the VNA science program, many urban schools have little or no EE. Other serious urban issues, from violence to illiteracy, make it hard for teachers to see environmental work as a key part of the big picture.

Schools in cities struggle to bridge the opportunity gap, a disparity in resources available to minority urban students. Urban schools struggle with a ten percent higher illiteracy rate than other schools. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students drop out at rates twenty percent higher than white and Asian students.

But this wide range of problems can provide a range of motivations for incorporating EE into curricula.

In the mostly urban schools that struggle to make nationally required adequate yearly progress on state tests, the evidence that environmental science improves test scores may help make the case for EE.

School communities that face low student achievement and high truancy and drop-out rates may incorporate EE as a tool to build community responsibility. Many urban environmental programs aim to build environmental stewardship and foster students’ personal skills.

In another program at VNA, the seventh grade students involved in Green Team are developing leadership and community responsibility as they become a source of EE for other students. Seventh grader and team member Yosvanny described Green Team: “We’re a group of seven that’s joined into a team to help the school become green.”

On Monday, April 7th, the Green Team used its usual lunchtime meeting to finish preparing a slideshow that the team members would present that week to help their classmates participate in the recycling system.

Green Team members created descriptive labels for the recycling and trash bins, and they are planning to offer a prize to the class that recycles the most.

Asked what she learned from Green Team, student and team member Alicia answered, “How to work as a team and listen to everyone’s ideas and collaborate them.” Isaak, another member, agreed, “Making sure everybody’s talking, everybody’s included.”

The members of Green Team see themselves as leaders in the school community. Alicia said, “We know that we’re not going to be here next year, but we hope that from what we do now, when we leave next year, they will continue to do this program, because it will keep improving year by year.”

Action projects like Green Team help students develop a sense of efficacy that can empower them in other aspects of their lives. Yosvanny shared a story of effecting change: “I have a sister in the first grade. Before, she never used to recycle.” After Yosvanny presented to her class, he said, his sister started recycling at school and at home. “She’s telling me, ‘Yosvanny, where does this go?’ And I tell her, ‘You have to figure it out!’… Now she doesn’t need my help, she just does it by herself.”

Green Team’s aspirations extend well beyond the school. “Once a person gets green and they get addicted to it,” said Green Team member Daniel, “it’s something they just want to do. Soon the community goes green, the city goes green, the state goes green, and we become like Sweden where you just have to import garbage!”

The passion of students like these is contagious. But urban EE can span other passions too, from the VNA science program’s goals to develop critical thinking skills to Damian Griffin’s desire to help immigrant youngsters feel comfortable in their environments. By finding common ground and fostering support for partnerships, these diverse sources can expand EE into a reality for more and more urban students.

And the seventh graders on Green Team want to make sure environmental awareness keeps expanding. Alicia said Green Team talks to elementary school students about recycling in their own communities. “It all starts with you,” she said she tells the younger students. “You get your own bins, make signs, and start communicating with your neighbors.”

Solutions to Water Micropollution


North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in New York City with a boat. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Every time people use water, it goes back down the drain less purified and clean than it was when it came out of the faucet. People, especially in the United States, take water accessibility and purity for granted so it is easy to forget about the implications of polluting water after use. While water may appear to be clean, it is often times contaminated with micropollutants after human use.  Micropollutants are widely misunderstood because they are not easily found or observed. They are organic, mineral, or synthetic substances that accumulate in the environment and can have a negative affect on organisms because of their toxic nature. This definition exemplifies the “pollutant” part of micropollutant, but micropollutants are also characterized by the small size. These substances are found to be as small as a few atoms that make a molecule to as large as 5 mm in diameter. Three types of pollution that were previously discussed in depth are pharmaceuticals, antibacterial active ingredients, and microplastics.

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The Science Behind and the Cost of Pollution

Clean air is beneficial and necessary for human life, but much of the air we breathe in is not clean. Air pollution refers to the condition in which air contains a high concentration of harmful chemicals. The results of breathing such air cause disastrous public health fallouts that can range from chronic infections to lung cancer on a large population scale. This deadly pollution is caused by solid particles and poisonous gases in the air that is fatal to health, otherwise known as air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide.Sandstorm Attacks Beijing

In a normal exchange during respiration, clean air is breathed in, processing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. However, a large component of polluted air is carbon dioxide. Breathing polluted air is essentially breathing in the very gas your body is trying to eliminate through exhalation. Lungs are largely made up of exposed membrane. Thus, breathed in air is filtered through this membrane to the air sacs. It is in these air sacs that oxygen is exchanged with carbon dioxide which is then exhaled. When breathed in air is polluted, the oxygen that is sent throughout the body includes the toxins that polluted the air to begin with. These toxins begin breaking down cellular structures in the lungs and throughout your respiratory system, resulting in chronic respiratory distress.

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