science communication

Bringing EPA Research—and Confidence—to the Classroom

By Dana Buchbinder

As an undercover introvert I never imagined myself returning to the chaos of middle school, but this spring I took a deep breath and plunged in. For ten Wednesdays I co-taught an afterschool air science apprenticeship for sixth and seventh graders in Durham, North Carolina. The curriculum, “Making Sense of Air Quality,” was developed and taught by two EPA researchers who have volunteered for the past three years with a not-for-profit educational organization.

Students demonstrate air pollution sensors

Making Sense of Air Quality: students demonstrate the air quality sensors they built.

I joined the ranks of these EPA “Citizen Teachers” to help close the opportunity gap in education. The public middle school where we taught serves students from low income families, with 84% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. 15 students participated in our apprenticeship to learn career skills and become air science experts at their school.

At first it was challenging to relax in front of a room of squirmy kids, but I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to students’ needs. Lessons don’t always go as planned (okay, almost never), but patient teaching in hectic moments inspires students to become more observant scientists. When I could step back and appreciate the weekly progress, I recognized the class’s accomplishments.

The students built air sensors from kits an EPA researcher created for outreach. None of the middle schoolers knew electrical engineering or computer programming when we began, but they learned the foundations of these skills in just a few weeks. I watched one student who had struggled with air pollution vocabulary build a working air sensor from a diagram. Meanwhile, his classmate formulated a hypothesis about how her sensor would react to dust in the air.

We asked students to think like environmental scientists: Where would they choose to place air sensors in a community? How could they share what they learned about air pollution?

They saw air quality sensors in action during our field trip to the Village Green Project, an EPA community air monitor at a Durham County Library. Exploring the equipment gave the apprentices more hands-on practice with science.

In addition to teaching kids about EPA air research, this spring’s apprenticeship focused on two 21st century skills: technology and communicating science. These are career tools for a host of much-needed occupations, but are also vital to advancing research for protecting human health and the environment.

We challenged students to share their new air quality knowledge creatively. They designed posters for a community Air Fair and crafted rhyming “public service announcements” to explain how EPA’s AirNow School Flag Program helps young people stay healthy.

The highlight of the apprenticeship for me was standing back as the students showcased what they learned in a scientific presentation for parents, teachers, and scientists. Nearly 300 people attended this culminating event for all the spring apprenticeships. With remarkable professionalism our class explained figures on poster displays, operated their air sensors, and quizzed the audience with an air quality game.

The guests were impressed by the students’ knowledge and caught their enthusiasm in learning about air quality. Asked if the sensor measured pollen, one student said, “oh no, that’s much too big, we are measuring very tiny particles.” Such responses exhibited scientific thinking, focus, and vastly improved understanding of air pollution.

As Citizen Teachers, we were proud to see even the shyest kids present with confidence. These students reminded me that introverts can share passionately when strongly motivated by the subject. By the end of the apprenticeship I had gained my own confidence as an educator from this young flock of scientists.

About the Author: Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She hopes you will attend the upcoming Air Sensors Workshop, where speakers in Research Triangle Park, NC will present on air quality monitoring with students.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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How Did You Celebrate Earth Day?

By Diane Simunek

Bird Feeder 9000

“Bird Feeder 9,000″

Earth Day has always been one of my favorite holidays, because adequate celebrations require little more than a walk through the park. A bike ride or a hike always seemed like enough to show my appreciation for the environment, and I couldn’t be happier with how little preparation was needed for these festive activities. Unlike for me, however, Earth Day for local middle schoolers of Corvallis, Oregon has involved significantly more planning.

Each year the researchers and other staff at EPA’s Western Ecology Division lab host a competition for local middle school students to channel their innovative sides and create something out of nothing.

This year the Re-use It or Lose It! Animal Edition event challenged students to create animal-themed masterpieces from reused, recycled, or salvaged items. Fourteen finalists were chosen and the students, as well as their parents, were invited to an Earth Day reception at the lab to showcase their projects. The event featured an ensuing awards ceremony announcing the winners.

The students had a choice between two categories, “Functional” or “Fantasy,” around which they could focus their projects. A number of creative entries were seen, from a television turned into a cat bed to a mason bee box. Top honor in the Functional category went to Lauren Dye of Cheldelin Middle School for “The Bird Feeder 9,000,” which she constructed using a stainless steel pot and lid, forks and spoons, and bottle caps with beads strung on fishing line to add flair.

Spotted Owl Earth Day sculpture

Northern spotted owl

The Fantasy category was won by Megan Mayjor of Franklin Middle School and her sculpture depicting a Northern spotted owl, which just happens to be the subject of a population model developed by an EPA researcher from the lab (read more about it in our newsletter). The piece was assembled with brown paper, corrugated cardboard, and an intricate attention to detail seen in the decoration of each feather. “I feel very happy and excited that I won! My rabbit actually seems to like the owl,” Megan said.

Congruent with the competition, the trophies the winners were awarded were also creatively constructed with reusable material by EPA chemist Bill Rugh. He used wood items from Habitat for Humanity, seed pods, plastic twist-ties, screws, burnt out toaster elements, and coffee grounds. Appropriately, the elaborate trophies were presented to the finalists by lab director Tom Fontaine.

Although my own Earth Day celebrations may be effortless in comparison, these students have put in the time, effort, and imagination to make remarkable results. They developed an idea, acquired the material, and built their creations all in a gesture supporting and appreciating our environment. I’ll be thinking about them on my next hike.

About the Author: Diane Simunek is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Science: Insight. Innovation. Impact.

By Lek Kadeli

“Science has been the backbone of the most significant advances EPA has made in the past four decades and continues to be the engine that drives American prosperity and innovation in the future.”  — Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator

Late last month, Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences about the central role that science plays in the work that we do here at EPA. In her speech, she noted how EPA research results have helped protect generations of American’s who now enjoy not only a cleaner, healthier environment, but a more prosperous future. “When we follow the science, we all win,” the Administrator said.

As the acting assistant administrator for the Agency’s Office of Research and Development, I have the privilege of watching that winning science unfold on a daily basis. I have a front row seat to the deliberative, time-honored scientific processes that yields results that have been carefully scrutinized, peer-reviewed, and more importantly, advances our understanding of some of the most critical challenges facing our nation.

Because our mandate is clear—to protect human health and the environment—our researchers must deliver results that support actions and policies that have true impact. Highlights of some of those achievements from last year are featured in our recently-released report, Insight. Innovation. Impact. 2013 Accomplishments, EPA Office of Research and Development.

The accomplishments presented in the report illustrate how insight, innovation, and impact are at the heart of our research.

annual-report-2013-lgTogether with agency program offices and regions as well as partnerships cultivated with stakeholders and throughout the scientific community, EPA research teams provide critical insight into current and emerging human health and environmental challenges. To that knowledge, they apply a collective spirit of innovation to provide timely, cost-effective tools, models, and other solutions. Finally, their research results are incorporated in ways that have true positive impact: improving human health, taking action on climate change, lowering exposure and risks to harmful pollutants, increasing national security, and advancing more resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities.

No other research organization in the world offers the overall diversity of expertise found in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. For more than four decades, this community of scientists and engineers has helped the Agency protect our environment, even as the economy has grown and the country has become stronger and more secure. I invite you to use our latest report for a transparent look at some of the latest achievements that continued commitment has yielded. Thanks to their efforts, we all win.  

Download the report. 

About the Author: Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. He has more than 29 years of management experience in both government and the private sector, with broad experience in leading organizational change and improvement, policy development, resource management, information management and technology.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Sustainability: the Sky’s the Limit

By Joan Hurley

Kite shaped like a snake with fangs

“The Queen Viper”

“Go fly a kite!” While that phrase has become a euphemism for not-so-politely telling someone to buzz off, the scientists, engineers, and others working in EPA’s Western Ecology Lab in Corvallis, Oregon recently challenged local school students to do just that.

As part of the lab’s 2013 Earth Day activities, the EPA staff held a juried kite contest called “The Sky’s the Limit” that invited local sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students to build a kite that sends a message about sustainability, recycling, or another environmental theme. Students could enter one of two categories: functional (a kite that flies), or decorative (a display kite with an environmental message or design); kites also had to contain at least one recycled element.

Each participating school selected six semifinalists from each category. Finalists, along with their teachers and parents, visited the lab on Earth Day for a reception and a chance to show off their entries to a panel of judges that included lab director Thomas Fontaine, local artist Zel Brook, and Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning.

Kings Valley Team (200)

Team members from Kings Valley Charter School.

“We made everything with reusable materials. It flies really well and we spent a lot of time on it. It sends a message that all animals are important to Earth, even if they are kind of scary,” wrote Andi Beck, who along with fellow Kings Valley Charter School classmates Victoria Fite and Sairah Ziola took home top prize in the functional category. You can see their kite—which they named “The Queen Viper” because of its resemblance to a snake—in the picture above. “The body is several segments of fabric sewn together, with triangles of fabric sewn on top of the segments to the end of the snake,” adds Sairah Ziola.

The winners of the artistic category are from Franklin School.

The winners of the artistic category are from Franklin School.

In the artistic category, the judges selected the kite made by Anabel Chang, Lucy Meigs, and Travis Hinz, which uses Chinese calligraphy to convey a message about the importance of sustainable energy. “The middle characters mean energy, the top means water, and the white means wind,” explains Anabel Chang. “It says that we should use energies that are better for our environment,” adds Lucy Meigs, while Travis Hinz points out the kite “is in the shape of a wind turbine, with three wings.”

These grand prize winners received a unique “recycled” trophy designed and constructed by EPA scientist Bill Rugh. Going along with the sustainable energy theme, the trophies function as wind speed generators! All participants also received Olympic-style medallions made from used coffee cup lids.

The artistic kite winner.

The artistic kite winner.

“The Sky’s the Limit” contest helped the lab and the local community engage in a fun-filled learning experience for all. The scientists and others at the lab got to share a little bit of what they do to advance environmental research, and the students got to learn about sustainability and help spread the word about why it is important. It’s enough to make you want to go fly a kite!

About the Author: Joan Hurley has worked at EPA’s Western Ecology Division lab as an Information Specialist and helping run outreach events, such as Earth Day, since 2005.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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#swimsafe: Let’s Chat about Healthy Waters

KidsinaswimmingpoolIt’s Recreational Water Illness & Injury Prevention Week! So let’s chat about how we’re using science to keep our water ways healthy. We’re thrilled to be joining The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s twitter chat #swimsafe on Wednesday May 22 at 2pm EDT.

We’ll be joining CDC experts Michele Hlavsa and Michael Beach to talk about how to keep yourself and your family healthy and safe this summer swim season and beyond. Our own EPA expert Tim Wade, a health scientist with our Epidemiology Branch will be fielding your questions about our research.

Learn more about his research investigating human health effects of waterborne exposures and new water quality methods at: http://www.epa.gov/neear/ and http://www.ehjournal.net/content/9/1/66.

Be sure to hop onto twitter, follow @CDC_NCEZID and @EPAresearch and ask questions using #swimsafe . Not on twitter? No problem! Post your questions for Dr. Wade in the comments section below.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Don’t Take Your Ecosystem to a Doctor

By Alexandra Soderlund

When not interning at EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn Suter II, who’s been an EPA scientist since 1998. Recently, his paper “A Critique of Ecosystem Health Concepts and Indexes” was listed in the all time top 100 papers of the scientific journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The whole idea of the paper is that the metaphor of ecosystem health doesn’t make a lot of sense, because ecosystems are not organisms and therefore they don’t have health. I’m currently completing a Bachelor of Science/Arts degree, and at first I thought “metaphors? That belongs in the Arts part of that one English class I took, not in Science.”

But science actually abounds in metaphors; ecosystem health is just one of them. Often they are so ingrained in the way we speak about a subject that we don’t notice when we use them.

That’s where people like Dr. Suter come in.

Frustrated by the aimless use of the phrase ‘ecosystem health,’ he set pen to paper in 1993 and wrote this article, which is still making waves today. Last year Dr. Suter witnessed a disagreement about this 20-year-old paper between members of a review panel. When he wrote it, he wanted people to think rigorously about the supposed “health” of an ecosystem, and consequently the debate shifted (though it still rages on).

For someone like me, who sees a future career in science communication, this makes a lot of sense. We need to evaluate the language and tools we use to explain concepts and engage with others to make sure they’re the best and most appropriate. This may mean using different terms for different audiences. As a scientific tool, the metaphor of ecosystem health isn’t all that useful because it doesn’t give us measurable goals and results. However, it is still useful for communicating with the public.

Amusingly, Dr. Suter actually considered a career in the health field.  Having “always been interested in living things,” he contemplated becoming a doctor, he says. But the growing environmental movement swept him up (like it does many of us) into an illustrious career in toxicology, ecological epidemiology and risk assessment.

Dr. Suter still enjoys writing conceptual papers, and once a week can be found discussing the finer points of assessment theory with a colleague after hours over a glass of wine. “Writing is the way I think through a problem,” he says. “I often don’t know how it’s going to end up; it’s a bit like writing a novel.”

About the Author: When not interning at the EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney, Australia. She is majoring in media/ technology and genetics, and is also the online coordinator for the NSW branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Education Outreach: Fun for All!

By Maureen Gwinn, Ph.D., DABT

Since 2007, the Girl Scouts Council Nation’s Capital Chapter has organized a Girl Scout Science Day to give local Girl Scouts an opportunity to learn more about science in a fun and friendly environment. 

I first became involved as a friend of the troop leader in charge of the event.  She and I would work on ideas, adapt experimental protocols and talk our science friends into volunteering at the event. 

EPA's Maureen Gwinn: "I enjoy every opportunity I have to encourage kids to have fun with science."

From the beginning, experiments have been led by Cadette or Senior Girl Scouts with the assistance of volunteers, including troop ‘moms’ and ‘dads’ and area scientists. We have hands-on experiments that address concepts of chemistry, microbiology, genetics, and toxicology.  We have had discussions related to what goes into your personal hygiene products, why DNA is unique to each of us, and how forensic science can help to solve a crime.

The Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts running the experiments at a recent event were the 4th graders who participated five years ago.  It has been a pleasure to see these girls not only learn the scientific concepts well enough to teach them to the new Brownie and Junior Girl Scouts, but to watch them take on more responsibility for the event itself.  Through my involvement in this event, I have been privileged to watch those young, giggly ten-year-old girls turn into responsible young ladies – that still giggle, but do so while teaching or setting up for the next group of girls. 

This event inspired me to volunteer in education outreach at other events, including the Society of Toxicology Annual meeting, EPA’s Earth Day celebrations, and the USA Science & Engineering Festival

Volunteering in education outreach was not something I had considered in the past, but after participating in the Girl Scout Science Day for the past five years, I enjoy every opportunity I have to encourage kids to have fun with science, to ask questions about how things work, and to work together to solve scientific problems. 

The Society of Toxicology Education Committee has ways to help support these types of opportunities, and for K-12 in particular we are putting together a website of ideas, experiments, and how-to’s to get you started in the new year. 

Are you interested in getting involved in education outreach, but don’t know where to start? Or are you already involved and have some tips or favorite resources to share? Please post your questions or suggestions in the comments section below so we can join forces.

The impact these events have on the kids is worth the effort. 

About the Author:  Maureen Gwinn is a biologist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment and works as an Associate National Program Director for Sustainable and Healthy Communities.  She is currently serving in her final year as the K-12 Subcommittee Chair for the Society of Toxicology and is always looking for ideas for scientific outreach.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Twenty Thousand…and Counting!

By Melissa Anley-Mills

@EPAresearch 20,000 followers graphicI remember the day we started our twitter account, @EPAresearch. An amazing opportunity to tag along with an EPA researcher conducting ecosystems and human health fieldwork in the beautiful forests of Connecticut had just come up for myself and a fellow member of the science communications team.

As communications folks, we were salivating. We would take photos and write about the research with excitement and passion, but we also wanted to be able to bring EVERYBODY into the woods with us to have a peek into this fascinating EPA research project.

“Microblogging” and the “tweetosphere” were just gaining traction and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a try. But I was a bit worried. Would I have cellphone coverage so I could tweet from the forest? Would it be possible? I decided to strap on my rubber boots and give it a try. It would be our field experiment.  (It turned out pretty good, I think: http://1.usa.gov/LSoUbq)

Since then we’ve live tweeted three years of EPA research news. Highlights have included People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) college student competitions on the National Mall, speeches of our VIPs, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (where we’ve given our Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award), and the fun and science learning from our booths at two USA Science and Engineering Festivals.

We’ve answered countless twitter questions, hosted behind-the-scenes lab tours for ScienceOnline participants, and just launched the My Air, My Health Challenge with HHS. We’ve shared our own research and learned about complementary efforts supporting EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment from our many EPA partners.

Today marks a milestone. We have reached 20,000 science followers!

To say thank you, we’re inviting you to send us (more) science and engineering questions via twitter. Tag them with this hashtag: #20Ksf. We will pick 20 questions to do something a little different from our usual tweeted responses. (Hint: it might involve audio of our scientists and perhaps a little creative artwork.)

Intrigued?  We’ll use our creativity to share our researchers’ answers.  Ask away using #20Ksf.

So stop the summer brain drain, think about what you might want to learn from an EPA scientist or engineer and ask us a question about science or engineering using #20Ksf!

Join us on twitter (www.twitter.com/EPAresearch) and be part of the online science conversation.  Don’t use twitter but want to be part of the discussion? We’ll also select some questions tagged #20Ksf from the comment section below.

Looking forward to your questions and to the discussions that we’ll have as we head for 40,000 enthusiastic science followers—and beyond!

About the Author: Melissa Anley-Mills manages the @EPAresearch twitter account and serves up information about EPA’s scientists and researchers 140 characters (or less) at a time!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday: The Importance of Sharing Our Science

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

“Is America flunking science?”

When Joe Levine, an environmental educator, posed this question in a presentation to EPA employees in Research Triangle Park, NC, my immediate answer was “no way.” After several examples of scientific misunderstandings, Levine started to change my mind.

Then, Levine gave an example that really hit home. He referenced how students are often taught about the skeletal system by having to memorize the names of human bones. I started to rack my brain for any bones I could remember and all I came up with was a verse from the song “Dry Bones.”

“The leg bone connected to the knee bone, and the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone connected to the hip bone.”

Levine explained how in many classrooms students memorize series of seemingly unrelated scientific facts (like the names of human bones), without getting a true understanding of how science works.

As his presentation continued, Levine focused on the difficulty of communicating science in today’s society. The topics presented resonated with me not only as someone working as a new member of the science communications team for EPA’s National Research Programs, but also as a communication student.

My education has engrained in me the belief that effective communication is necessary in every industry and field. As the country faces complex environmental issues, the importance of science outreach, education and communication only grows.

But, science communication doesn’t come without its challenges. Levine highlighted the need to:

  • Increase scientific literacy so more people understand how science works
  • Present scientific information in short, digestible forms
  • Provide a strong scientific presence in the media, especially online

I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a communications campaign at EPA that’s meeting these needs. The Office of Research and Development’s Clean Air Research Program’s campaign, Air Science 40, is sharing research accomplishments and scientific contributions through things like a short documentary film, Science to Protect the Air We Breathe and events.

Levine summed up the potential and value of science communication with one of his final thoughts, “scientific knowledge empowers people.” With the right approach, science communication can be as innovative, interesting and important as the science itself. I’m happy to be a part of that effort here at EPA.

About the author: Rachel Canfield is a student services contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a graduate student in communication at North Carolina 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.

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