environmental education

EPA Grant to Schools Helps Bring Green Thumbs and Healthy Eating to Kirksville, Mo.

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

Teagan Scheurer and Levi Boyer plant pumpkin seeds at the Early Childhood Learning Center. Children will also help harvest the vegetables from their seeds.

Teagan Scheurer and Levi Boyer plant pumpkin seeds at the Early Childhood Learning Center. Children will also help harvest the vegetables from their seeds.

EPA Region 7 awarded an Environmental Education grant in late 2015 that is funding gardening lessons and nutrition classes in the Kirksville School District in Kirksville, Mo. Karen Keck, project manager, has engaged various youth as students, interns and volunteers, not to mention the city’s businesses and senior residents.

Many hands-on, outdoor activities happened this summer. The following blog by Karen gives just a taste of what was accomplished. Besides the good work of the school district, my favorite part of this grant is seeing the happy faces of the students, as they learn about and engage in their environment.

By Karen Keck

The Green Thumb Project had a great summer of activities through the work of people taking the lead on projects at the school and in the community. Four summer interns and our grant coordinator, Josh Ellerman, and an AmeriCorps member, Derek Franklin, were employed in educating various groups about gardening and healthy eating.

Derek Franklin works with a Village 76 resident and Green Thumb Intern Kaitlyn Meyer to check the health of the "veggie squares," personal gardens created for residents.

Derek Franklin works with a Village 76 resident and Green Thumb Intern Kaitlyn Meyer to check the health of the “veggie squares,” personal gardens created for residents.

Intern Cole Haugen maintained the garden at the Early Childhood Learning Center. Additionally, Cole presented interactive lessons to the children who attend the center during the summer.

Kaitlyn Meyer and Becca Elder were supported by the Kirksville Housing Authority to build, maintain and move “veggie squares” (4-by-4 raised beds) outside the doors of elderly residents at an independent living community, Village 76. They held events with this community through the summer, usually involving vegetables and herbs and plenty of conversation. Kaitlyn and Becca also contributed to educational activities at a subsidized housing area in Kirksville.

Amanda Thomas was hired to make t-shirts for the project, spruce up the learning garden at the schools, and find creative ways to advertise the project throughout the city. Justin McKean also worked at the learning garden, weeding and planting to keep it looking good throughout the summer and making sure it would be ready to use for classes and after-school programs when classes began.

EPA's Kris Lancaster participates in an outdoor environmental education program, sponsored by the Kirksville School District in partnership with the Green Thumb Project.

EPA’s Kris Lancaster (left) participates in an outdoor environmental education program, sponsored by the Kirksville School District in partnership with the Green Thumb Project.

Together, they led a “Seed to Plate” camp and presented garden programs to children enrolled in a YMCA summer program. Overall, a variety of engaging activities were implemented for a wide variety of people in Kirksville!

About the Introducer: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Karen Keck is the outdoor education coordinator for the Kirksville School District, and teaches environmental science, earth science and biology at Kirksville High School. She is the current chairperson of the Green Thumb Project Board of Advisors.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Learning the 4 R’s: Kansas City Area Students Strive to Reduce Food Waste

By Shari L. Wilson, Project Central

Kansas City students help divert food waste from the landfill

Kansas City students help divert food waste from the landfill

About 95 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. That is a huge problem for our country. Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great people to help schools in the Kansas City metro area understand more about food waste and what they can do to reduce it.

I really enjoy teaching the 4 R’s – refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. “Refuse” means saying no to accepting unnecessary packaging, such as plastic bags. Kids get it. I also involve custodial and kitchen staff in the process. My focus is to help the school divert waste from the landfill, while remaining focused on not adding more work tasks to school staff.

Through a grant program funded by the Mid-America Regional Council’s Solid Waste Management District and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, five schools composted more than 50 tons of waste last year, and so far this year, 13 schools have composted more than 36 tons.

A few of the schools I’ve been working with include Trailwoods Elementary, Rogers Elementary, and James Elementary, which are close to East High School in Kansas City, Mo. It’s the first time some of the students have been exposed to environmental education. Teachers and students are enthusiastic, and kids are sometimes leading the efforts in the lunchroom. These students have worked hard to become good environmental stewards.

Elementary students learn about ways to reduce food waste, including composting

Elementary students learn about ways to reduce food waste, including composting

I’ve enjoyed working with Jensen Adams, energy and sustainability manager, Kansas City Public Schools. He is an enthusiastic environmental partner, and totally engaged in getting kids involved in environmental protection.

My colleague in these efforts is Environmental Scientist Gary Kannenberg. We have worked to engage students in learning about food waste in the lunchroom, composting and waste diversion, and also with EPA Region 7 staff who have provided technical assistance, utilizing data and taking into consideration overall food costs at schools.

Joining EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) brings many benefits, including:

  • Reducing your environmental footprint
  • Helping your community by donating nutritious, quality, unused food to feed hungry people
  • Saving money by purchasing less and lowering waste disposal fees
  • Gaining visibility by having your name listed on EPA’s website
  • Receiving recognition through awards and social media
  • Getting free technical assistance in the form of webinars, an online database, and resources to help you plan, implement and track your activities
  • Getting a free climate change report to highlight your positive effect on the environment

My hope is to engage more schools in food waste education, and for schools to consider joining the Food Recovery Challenge. Currently, about 20 schools in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska have signed up for the FRC. The ultimate goal is to make food recovery part of the culture and curriculum in schools, and part of the students’ home environment.

About the Author: Shari L. Wilson founded Project Central to provide services primarily in the areas of education, environment, healthy communities, and the arts. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history and philosophy from Washburn University, and a Master of Arts in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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‘Wow, they did all that?’ – Nebraska Teacher, Students Earn National Honors for Community Efforts

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

In our last blog, we proudly featured Shawn Graham and his science students with Omaha Public Schools’ Accelere Program. He’s one of only 10 teachers in the U.S. to receive the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. Region 7 spotlights Shawn and his students once more in this second blog, where he continues to describe their nationally-applauded efforts.

Winners of Good Earth Steward Award on Accelere's Hydroponics Team: Shawn Graham, Solangel Feuntes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez, with EPA presenter Kathleen Fenton; Brittany Merrill and Breonna Berry; Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis

Winners of Good Earth Steward Award on Accelere’s Hydroponics Team – top row: Shawn Graham, Solangel Feuntes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez, with EPA presenter Kathleen Fenton; middle row: Brittany Merrill and Breonna Berry; bottom row: Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis

I visited Omaha, Neb., in June 2016 to honor the school, Shawn, and 21 of his students with EPA Region 7’s Good Earth Steward Award. I witnessed how Shawn engages his students about the circle of life through science classes, hydroponics lessons, and ways to give back to the environment and their community. It was a fascinating field trip.

There is an old adage: Many hands make light the work. Shawn and his Accelere students know this firsthand and their collective work is amazing! They learn about environmental science, food production, and consistently feed their community with their harvests. A noble effort!

By Shawn Graham

Our Accelere students learn about and produce plants through the hydroponic systems they created with the help of our partners, the Nebraska Academy of Science and Nebraska Environmental Trust Plant Laboratory. It was quite remarkable that the students took over an abandoned locker room just last year to build their new hydroponics lab, and have already reaped so many benefits for themselves and Omaha neighborhoods.

Gabriela Hernandez shows off cucumber plants and fish food

Gabriela Hernandez shows off cucumber plants and fish food

The school and students produce pollinator plants and food for harvesting. Last year, we produced pollinator plants worth more than $11,000 and distributed them free to the public to help others build up pollinator habitats.

Additionally, this year we supplied Black Locust trees, Comfrey, Blazing Star, and Gallardia worth $2,221 to assist our community partner, Omaha Permaculture. Their work creates healthy ecosystems through urban agriculture-related economic development, while promoting the use of unused or unwanted vacant land to elevate the property’s utility and value for the surrounding neighborhood.

Another student project underway this year is with our community partner, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, which entails growing four different species of milkweed plants worth $1,231 to assist in rounding out the pollinator habitats across Nebraska.

One of our finest, ongoing Accelere student and community efforts is working with our partners, Open Door Mission and Sol-Nest International (SI), to grow and harvest White Nile Tilapia (WNT) fish.

Rodney Russel, Sol-Nest International, working with our White Nile Tilapia fish

Rodney Russel, Sol-Nest International, working with our White Nile Tilapia fish

Our students created the hydroponics farm over this past year. Our farm and SI are now the only licensed suppliers of WNT in the entire state of Nebraska! The students received the necessary license from the Nebraska Games and Parks Hatchery to develop WNT as a protein source for the Open Door Mission’s customers.

The Open Door Mission is a nonprofit organization that serves 2,000 meals a day to the hungry and homeless in Omaha. The students have pledged $20,000 of tilapia for the future to benefit the Mission’s culinary arts program.

One of my students, Gabriela Hernandez, explains how people have reacted to this project: “Wow, they [the students] did all that?” Gabriela worked to develop the WNT program from the ground up.

Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis created a new technique for hydroponic vegetables. Here they show off their fish, Sassy.

Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis created a new technique for hydroponic vegetables. Here they show off their fish, Sassy.

Students Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis are our water quality experts, running tests to make sure all the units are running effectively. Both of them are also pioneering a new technique for growing potatoes and carrots with hydroponics.

We have 21 committed students this year, who are working, studying and producing fish and food in the Accelere Hydroponics Laboratory. I’d like to add thanks to our mentors who gave valuable help to our students. And I also want express my gratitude to our community partners. There are more than 50! Without their financial assistance, grants and guidance, none of our projects could have been completed.

“It is a lot of fun to be in Mr. Graham’s classroom,” Gabriela Hernandez said. “He listens to us and helps us learn in fun ways, while we give back to the environment.”

About the Introducer: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Shawn Graham is a science teacher with the Accelere Program at Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Neb. He has been teaching 11th and 12th grade students for 13 years. Shawn’s two main goals are to generate a deeper understanding of course topics by connecting his students with the environment, and encourage students to pursue life-long learning through post-secondary education.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Nebraska Teacher Wins Presidential Award; Students Examine Cosmic Rays in Soil

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

Shawn Graham with his award plaque at the White House ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16, 2016

Shawn Graham with his award plaque at the White House ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16, 2016

Science Teacher Shawn Graham, Omaha Public Schools’ Accelere Program, is one of 10 educators across the U.S. to win the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators for 2015-2016. This prestigious award honors K-12 teachers from each EPA region who employ innovative approaches to environmental education and use the environment as a context for their students’ learning.

Shawn is a compassionate and diligent high school teacher, and one of the best liaisons I’ve seen at work. He networks with over 50 local, state and federal organizations, and most of his students’ parents, who all pitch in to educate the Accelere students.

The Accelere Program provides access to a challenging, accelerated degree format for Omaha students, ages 17-20, who want to earn a high school diploma. Working with his many partners behind the scenes, Shawn develops a tailor-made science program to fully engage all of his students.

Region 7 is featuring Shawn and his students’ nationally recognized work in this blog and the next one. Read these stories to learn how a Nebraska teacher helps his students each day by connecting them to their community by delivering environmental education, science, real-world experiences and fun!

By Shawn Graham

I want to express how lucky I am to be teaching so many talented individuals. I also have the privilege of sharing their talents with several community partners to improve our environment.

My students come up with unique ways of problem-solving today’s challenges. Part of what I do is to relate the students’ interests in post-secondary subjects to the curriculum I teach. I wish to best relate the students’ interests and experiences with their lesson plans and projects.

The first project I have my students explore is through the Cosmic Ray Observation Project (CROP) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, headed by Daniel Claes, Ph.D., department chair and associate dean of research in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Accelere’s CROP program is designed to meet two goals: To study the pattern of cosmic particles, and to interest high school students in science careers (especially physics).

Solangel Fuentes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez in front of their math formulas

Solangel Fuentes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez in front of their math formulas

Through the use of CROP detection equipment, students measure the neutron particles in the soil. They also measure the level of activity of the particles bombarding the Earth and how plants respond to these different levels, specifically as it relates to soil moisture. The work also allows students to produce research-quality data and prepares them for college-level science and research classes.

Solangel Fuentes-Vasquez, Brittany Merrill, and Breonna Berry used the CROP classroom detectors, collected data, and connected cosmic-ray physics with global food security – relating how cosmic rays can affect pollinator plant production.

“We had to learn about this work step-by-step,” Solangel said.

The students have found the work intriguing and love hearing the responses to their studies. Breonna explains, “We are always asked what they (cosmic rays) are and what this data is used for.” Brittany always gets this response from people viewing a scan: “What is that?”

Their favorite explanation is to refer folks to the video produced by Professor Claes, who explains how radiation impacts our everyday lives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbmSmgTIQ8s.

About the Introducer: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Shawn Graham is a science teacher with the Accelere Program at Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Neb. He has been teaching 11th and 12th grade students for 13 years. Shawn’s two main goals are to generate a deeper understanding of course topics by connecting his students with the environment, and encourage students to pursue life-long learning through post-secondary education.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Youth in the Environment

By Dan D’Agostino

Small programs at EPA Region 2 can often have a meaningful impact for the local community. Each year, the Youth in the Environment Program (YEP) takes around 20 high-school and college aged young people from economically underprivileged communities around New York City and presents them with the opportunity to work in the environmental field for the summer. The participants get firsthand experience working at New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) facilities, performing critical lab work, field sampling, working in warehouses and running the billing system. The Youth in the Environment program fosters an understanding of the value of public service and the significance of protecting our local environmental resources.

EPA Region 2, the National Partnership for Environmental Technology Education (PETE) of the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), the Woodycrest Center for Human Development and NYCDEP partnered together to deliver this program to the community. Nationally, the Youth in the Environment Program here in Region 2 is the longest running youth program that PETE implements. The program represents a nexus between federal and local government and local communities. It is a great example of EPA Region 2 bringing people together with the goal of a healthier environment and increased economic opportunity for young New Yorkers.

Doug Pabst and Dan D’Agostino from EPA Region 2’s Clean Water Division present an award to a Youth in the Environment program graduate.

Doug Pabst and Dan D’Agostino from EPA Region 2’s Clean Water Division present an award to a Youth in the Environment program graduate.

On August 18, 2016, this year’s program was capped off by the annual “Recognition Day” ceremony, where youth participants, community leaders, program organizers and program partners convened to celebrate the achievements of the young people involved. Deputy Bronx Borough President Aurelia Green addressed the participants and highlighted how fortunate they were to have the opportunity to work in the environmental field, stressing the potential to make a positive impact on the community. The Clean Water Division’s Doug Pabst delivered a keynote address in which he explained how many of us take New York City’s water infrastructure for granted- the only time we think about it is the rare occasion that is isn’t working 100% correctly. He praised the youth participants for all the hard work they did and for being a part of something so important to the daily lives of New Yorkers.

Perhaps the most compelling words were those of the youth participants themselves. All of them spoke of the program as a challenge; one that could be interpersonal, scientific or even physical in nature; but one that they all overcame with determination and hard work.

About the Author: Dan is with the Clean Water Division’s State Revolving Fund Program Section. He holds a MEng. in Environmental Engineering from Manhattan College. Dan has been with EPA Region 2 for six years and has worked on a variety of subject areas including sustainable infrastructure, climate change and trash free waters.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrating National Pollinator Week: Is Beekeeping for Me?

By Catherine Wooster-Brown

Catherine Wooster-BrownThere’s nothing better than sweet golden honey drizzled onto your yogurt, ice cream, or fluffy biscuit. What if you could have a constant supply of honey right in your own backyard, produced by your very own honey bees?

As of 2014, there were about 125,000 backyard beekeepers in the U.S. Each city has its own zoning ordinance for honey bee hives. And there is always a local beekeeping group nearby.

Of course, there are plenty of backyard beekeepers in the Heartland, so the Big Blue Thread (BBT) decided to highlight five of our beekeeping cohorts here at EPA Region 7 during National Pollinator Week, June 20-26.

Jamie Green, Toxics and Pesticides Chief

BBT: Why did you decide to keep bees?

Green: I was preparing to attend a forum several years ago on pollinators, and as beekeepers would be participating, I decided to do some general reading on beekeeping in order to better understand some of the issues or concerns I might hear. The more I read, the more I found them to be pretty interesting insects and decided that, to learn more, I probably would need to do it myself. I thought I would do it for a couple of years and move on to something else, but I’m still learning and found I enjoy working the bees.

Honey bee pollinating flower

Honey bee pollinating flower

BBT: What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

Green: There are a lot of different things I find enjoyable about beekeeping, so it’s a little difficult to narrow the list to a few. I enjoy working and observing the bees. I keep my hives at an acreage not far from home, but far enough that it gets me out of town for a little while. It’s a little bit like gardening, in that you work to help keep the hive healthy and thriving, and then once a year you get the opportunity to enjoy the harvest of a little of the extra honey the bees produce. I also enjoy sharing the honey with others. I try to give some to the family that is gracious enough to let me keep my hive on their acreage, and also to others in my family.

BBT: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about beekeeping?

Green: Take a class. There are plenty offered by beekeeping associations and community colleges. Read a lot and connect with at least someone that is experienced and can coach you along the way. In the few years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learned it’s not as easy as just putting some bees in a box and forgetting about them until harvest, so having someone you can bounce questions off is helpful.

BBT: Do you have a favorite food to drizzle honey on?

Green: Honey is good on everything!

Kathleen Fenton, Public Affairs

BBT: Why did you decide to keep bees?

Fenton: We wanted to keep bees to bolster the honey bee population and to help better pollinate our fruit tree orchard.

BBT: What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

Fenton: What I enjoy about beekeeping is that it’s a never-ending educational program – learning their processes, their behavior (swarming, health, honey production, pests), and truly teaching others who are interested in the topic. We have loved sharing what we’ve learned over the years.

BBT: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about beekeeping?

Fenton: Don’t be afraid to ask for help from other beekeepers and just do it! It is fun and relatively easy, and it’s a terrific hobby. I mean, really, one of the end results is HONEY!

BBT: Do you have a favorite food to drizzle honey on?

Fenton: Honey drizzled on grilled Brussel sprouts – and one of the special things we do with our honey is give most of it away as our Christmas gifts to family. It’s a big hit!

John Dunn, Wastewater and Infrastructure Management

BBT: Why did you decide to keep bees?

Dunn: I was curious about keeping bees, so I attended a local beekeeping meeting and I said to myself, “I could do this!” Bees are so smart.

Beekeepers at work

Beekeepers at work

BBT: What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

Dunn: It is a real learning curve and I am constantly amazed. Don’t like the stinging so much.

BBT: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about beekeeping?

Dunn: Lots to learn, hang out with bee people. By its very nature, beekeeping requires some learning and patience. Bee people have these qualities and it makes for a good crowd.

BBT: Do you have a favorite food to drizzle honey on?

Dunn: I eat most of my honey off my left index finger. A little dab will do ya!

Aaron F. Casady, Environmental Science and Technology

BBT: Why did you decide to keep bees?

Casady: Growing up, I helped my beekeeper uncle harvest honey and the experience stuck with me. After I moved to Kansas City and started full-time office work, I looked for hobbies that would help me to stay connected to the outdoors and to explore my interests in agriculture. Beekeeping was a perfect fit.

BBT: What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

Casady: Just watching the bees come and go from the hive and observing them work. It amazes me that every time I open a hive, they don’t even stop to look up (that is, if I do it right). They just keep on working! They accomplish so much for being so tiny.

BBT: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about beekeeping?

Casady: Beekeeping can be a difficult (and expensive) hobby. Find someone to shadow for a year before you decide to get your own hives. Then when you do have your own hives, don’t be afraid to treat them for pests and disease when necessary.

BBT: Do you have a favorite food to drizzle honey on?

Casady: Vanilla ice cream is my favorite food to pour honey on!

Catherine Wooster-Brown, Environmental Data and Assessment

BBT: Why did you decide to keep bees?

Wooster-Brown: My husband, Rick, and I love to garden. We love to work on our own gardens and travel to places to see other gardens. Gardening and bees is a natural fusion. A few years ago, Rick said to me that he would like to put a beehive in our garden and I thought, “What a cool idea!” So for his February birthday, I bought him an unfinished Langstroth beehive that we had to put together, frames and all, and  then painted the outside. It was a fun project to work on together during the winter, and then we picked up our first package of bees in April and installed them into our finished hive. It was just like getting a new pet!

Healthy honey bee frame covered with bees and capped honey cells

Close-up of healthy honey bee frame covered with bees and capped honey cells

BBT: What do you enjoy the most about beekeeping?

Wooster-Brown: As my beekeeping cohorts mentioned above, watching bees come and go from the hive, their little pollen sacs all filled up, makes you feel like everything is right with the world. Honey bees are a superorganism, which is an organized society of individuals that functions as an organic whole. They are fascinating to observe. Did you know that honey bees are able to keep the hive temperature consistent (around 95°F) in both summer and winter by moving their wings in unison? OK, so I’m easily fascinated!

BBT: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about beekeeping?

Wooster-Brown: You can hire an experienced beekeeper, as a mentor, to help you get started. That is worth its weight in gold, because when there’s a problem – and there will be – a beginner or intermediate beekeeper may not recognize the problem as quickly as an experienced beekeeper. You do have to catch some problems right away or your bees could swarm (leave the hive) or they could decline to the point of no return.

BBT: Do you have a favorite food to drizzle honey on?

Wooster-Brown: My favorite honey drizzle is on a fluffy biscuit. But Kathleen’s idea of honey on grilled Brussel sprouts sounds yummy!

About the Author: Catherine Wooster-Brown serves as an ecological risk assessor at EPA Region 7 and a member of the Region 7 Pollinator Workgroup. Catherine has a degree in environmental science and policy from the University of Maine, and studied aquatic biology and macroinvertebrate taxonomy in graduate school at Missouri State University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

The Last Year of an Environmental Educator’s Career: Reflections on Sustainability

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

I’m fortunate to manage EPA Region 7’s Environmental Education Program. I get to meet folks like Dr. Michael Hotz, who work tirelessly to ensure today’s students understand, value and enjoy learning. Dr. Hotz is one of those exceptional teachers who students remember long after they’ve graduated, an educator who makes a lasting impression. Most importantly, he’s influenced students to realize that science, technology, engineering and math are subjects they can understand and have fun doing, while actually learning – and it’s knowledge they can keep and use for years to come.

Dr. Hotz is a model teacher and representative of many fine teachers across the Heartland. I had the honor of watching him receive his Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. I wish him well on his career’s final year, and hope the teaching profession can employ more teachers like him. Thank you, Dr. Hotz, for an impressive 31-year run!

By Dr. Michael Hotz

As I begin the last of 31 years of teaching young people, I reflect on sustainability. Through the last 19 years in the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District, I’ve had the opportunity to create a school garden/outdoor classroom, conduct long-term watershed studies, create an aquaponic system where tilapia grow and greenhouse plants are nourished, and conduct energy audits to save more than $100,000 in utility costs.

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

It’s been a great experience, and I have an EPA employee to thank for, as she says, “planting the seed of ideas.” Roberta Vogel-Luetung sat with me as we brainstormed ideas over 15 years ago at an in-service meeting conducted by EPA. We discussed how an empty, unused courtyard at Wyandotte High School could be used for teaching environmental content. Since that meeting, the courtyard has been turned into a school garden and outdoor classroom with 20 raised beds, an automated sprinkler system, all-weather walkways, flower gardens, a water feature, and composting facilities.

Students were challenged and stepped up to the task of designing, building, and financing this area, which they also help plant and maintain. These students, as well as others, have reaped the fruits of their labors. Joanne Postawait has taken over the responsibility of planting and harvesting this area, while I continue to help with its hardscape maintenance.

School garden/outdoor classroom

School garden/outdoor classroom

The EPA video “After the Storm” inspired me to create a “challenge-based” learning experience for the Small Learning Community in which I teach at Wyandotte High School. Through collaboration with my fellow educators Ms. Hornberger (Math), Mr. Willard (English), and Mr. Zak (Engineering), we created a long-term project around Big Eleven Lake in Kansas City, Kan.

Each year, students study their watershed in my science classes. We bring the studies down to the local level of what the students can do themselves to help the watershed. They’ve been taught how to conduct water testing, and then go into the field and test Big Eleven Lake, Kaw Point (at the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers), and other lakes in the area. Comparisons are made and reported to the Kansas Health Department. All of the curriculums are tied into this experience. Standardized test scores demonstrate that significant gains have been made because of this program.

I was also a member of the EPA Urban Lake Testing Group where EPA provided water testing techniques and equipment, and samples were sent to EPA laboratories for analysis. I was then able to train residents of the Big Eleven Lake area, who belong to the Struggler’s Hill/Roots Neighborhood Association, to do the water testing. These neighborhood association members were helpful in sharing their lives and experiences around the lake, and the EPA employees were just as helpful with the testing and field work.

Aquaponics system

Aquaponic system

We developed a pilot aquaponics program where tilapia are grown. The water from these tanks is sent to trays where plants are grown, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the fish and plants. Wastes from the tilapia nourish tomatoes, herbs, squash, and other plants in our greenhouse. This type of organic, non-polluting growing system is 10 times more efficient than traditional methods and saves water.

I initiated energy audits and plans to save on utility costs. Students use testing equipment to monitor lights, electricity, and temperature and then develop plans to reduce usage. More than $100,000 was saved in a single year. A recycling program also is in place, which is operated by our Environmental Club and is part of the Green Schools Program of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.

Aquaponic system

Aquaponic system

These programs helped me to be recognized as a proud winner of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE). EPA and its employees have been instrumental in the development and teaching of these programs.

I am honored that my former student and 2015 graduate, Karina Macias Leyva, wrote the following in her letter of recommendation for the award: “When Dr. Hotz teaches anything that is part of the environmental education field, even with the smallest projects, he inspires students to gain awareness of their environment and acquire knowledge, skills, values, experiences and also determination, which will enable students to act individually and collectively that will lead to solving present and future environmental problems.”

I’m currently working with Towson University, investigating how environmental education happens in and out of the classroom and what impacts student understanding and attitudes about the environment and environmental science.

As I plan for this final year of teaching, my major concern is sustaining these programs. I’m training and encouraging other teachers at Wyandotte High School to keep them going. Our environmental future depends upon the teaching of young minds here in the Heartland and across the nation.

I have enjoyed and am thankful for the relationships that have been made with EPA, and I look forward to working with all of you at EPA during this final year.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hotz has been a teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., for the past 19 years, as part of his 31-year teaching career. He was awarded the PIAEE in 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Sharing a Passion for Nature with a New Generation

by Jorine Campopiano

It’s all or nothing. I’m all-in. This is the way I live my life. I am passionate about what I do and work hard on the things I care about. I feel lucky to work as an Environmental Education Coordinator for EPA’s Region 9 in California, where every day I get to work with kids and educators who have that same passion.

When I was a little girl, my father – a nature and hiking enthusiast — would take me on long trips to our local mountains. It was grueling keeping up with him — we would hike for hours. We backpacked and camped in the snow. We always stayed out too long and would end up pulling out our flashlights just to get back to the car. It wasn’t always fun – I would get tired, grumpy, and yes even cry, but I had little choice but to keep moving, I didn’t give up. I grew to appreciate nature, and now as a mother of three young boys, I try to give them similar hands-on experiences so they can understand the bigger issues our earth faces. At EPA, we support the philosophy of hands-on, interactive environmental education that connects science and environmental issues to students’ everyday lives.

This week, EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality are recognizing winners of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators and the President’s Environmental Youth Award. These programs recognize teachers and K-12 youth who harness their passion and put it towards a project that promotes awareness of our nation’s natural resources and encourages positive community involvement. Our student winners in Region 9 – a class from the Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, California – were inspired by their desire to protect several Pacific sea turtle species. What impressed me most about this project was the complexity and diversity of what they did. This wasn’t some standard school project. The class jumped in, making a movie about the sea turtles, promoting plastic bag bans at City Council meetings, and acting as global ambassadors, by raising thousands of dollars to educate Indonesian fishing village children about the issue.

 photo of a group of kids at the Library of Congress

PEYA winners from Watsonville, California visit the Library of Congress while in D.C. to receive their award.

I am excited to meet the winners this week and am honored to participate in the Presidential Awards Ceremony as a representative from EPA Region 9.  I brought my eldest son, and I hope that he is inspired by hearing about what students across the country have done to improve their environment. Maybe he’ll also understand more about the work his mother does to protect the earth, as I learned from my father.

It’s been said that just a few committed citizens have the power to change the world.  I believe this and believe in the potential shown by these winners. I’m all-in.

Jorine has worked at EPA since 2003, focusing on issues related to wetlands, water and children’s health before her interests expanded to environmental education. She holds a Master of Science in Environmental Science & Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Solar Panels and “Scrape Metel”…

By Wendy Dew

You have to love it when you walk up to a school and kids are planting trees and a 1st grader is waiting at the door to inform you where you should put your “scrape metel”.  I had not yet identified myself as  an EPA employee there to photograph the amazing kids who received a grant to put solar panels on the roof of their school.  Any visitor to Mackintosh Academy that day would be astounded at the amount of environmental work occurring at the school.  After almost a decade in environmental education at EPA you would think I could no longer be amazed by kids…think again!

“Scrape metel” collection box Photo by Wendy Dew

“Scrape metel” collection box
Photo by Wendy Dew

Mackintosh Academy in Littleton, Colorado is leading the pack in environmental education.  Numerous projects have been accomplished and many more are in the works.  The most notable project was recently completed right before Earth Day 2015.  A group of students at the school decided that they needed to do more to help the environment.  They decided to apply for a grant through State Farm Youth Advisory Board’s service learning grant and were able to get $96,000 to put solar panels on their school.  The panels, now installed, save the school money and reduce carbon emissions.  The school will even be able to put energy back onto the grid.

Nicholas, Sydney, Delia and Skyler the 7th graders who made the solar project happen Photo by Wendy Dew

Nicholas, Sydney, Delia and Skyler the 7th graders who made the solar project happen
Photo by Wendy Dew

The kids involved in the project, 7th graders, are very excited to have solar panels on the roof of their school.  Talking with the kids it is clear that they understand the importance of what they have been able to accomplish for the school and for the environment.

The school is also planting trees, recycling, composting and learning about how these actions help to protect the environment.  Every time I visit a new school to see what kids are doing to green their own school, the bar gets raised.  When we   visit schools to do talks we often find out the kids know  more about the environment than we thought.   My colleague was  worried that 2nd graders would not understand recycling, they then proceeded to show  us their composting program!  I do not worry about the future.  Soon kids like the ones at Mackintosh Academy will be leading the way in environmental protection and telling us how to get it done!

About the author: Wendy Dew is the Outreach and Education Coordinator for EPA Region 8.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Committed to Environmental Education On and Off the Job

By Kim Bartels

From the very beginning of my career with EPA as a kids’ environmental health coordinator, I have been afforded the opportunity to share my passion for protecting the environment and my love of science with children. This has been a significant aspect of my life personally, because no matter what my job title is, at the heart of it all, I am a scientist and a mom.  I care about this work so much that I’ve even started volunteering at a neighborhood school.  Now in my third year as a science volunteer, coordinating science enrichment activities at my kids’ elementary school, I have had the opportunity to engage hundreds of kids in fun ways of learning about science and the environment.

I coordinate the Science Explorer’s Club and it has become so popular with students that we have expanded it to run the entire school year. We meet once a month before school and have been told by a few parents that their young scientists amazingly bounce out of bed at their earlier time, excited to join us. Roughly 70 young scientists conduct projects and experiments that include spooky science, egg drop challenges, leaning towers of pasta, borax snowflakes, holiday chemistry, forensics, bubbleology, candy science, color mixology, fun with dry ice, and a liquid nitrogen demonstration.


As I became known for my enthusiasm for science and all things sustainable, my involvement with other enrichment activities expanded to include the Science Fair and an annual week-long Waste Free Lunch Challenge, and I am now a mentor for the school’s Green Team. This advisory team of 5th and 6th grade students serves as recycle ambassadors for their assigned classrooms, coordinates special recycling efforts for a few hard-to-recycle lunchroom items and sponsors a month-long clothing reuse/recycling collection drive as an Earth Day activity and a fundraiser.

Beyond the importance of fostering kids’ enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and math, another reason I love my volunteer work is the kids’ priceless reactions. My daughter recently shared with me that if she could have one wish granted from a genie and she couldn’t wish for more wishes (obviously), she would wish for the whole world to reuse and recycle EVERYTHING. After hearing that my son gets to do a lot of science experiments at home, his classmate expressed that she wished she could come to our house for more science. Probably one of the best declarations came from my 4 year old “assistant,” who attends all of my volunteer gigs, as she announced, “Mom, I just want to do science with you FOREVER!” My immediate response: Um, yes please!

About the author: Kim Bartels is the Region 8 Children’s Environmental Health Coordinator.  She has a BA in Biology and a MS in Environmental Science.  She enjoys spending time outdoors with her family of five, finding creative ways to show her children how the world can be their very own science laboratory.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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