EPA-funded Program Leads at-Risk Youth to a Brighter Future

I’m  Derron Coles, an engineer and instructional designer in Portland, Oregon who engages young men of color in protecting the environment – a cause most of my students have never considered. I help run Grounding Waters, a youth mentoring program funded through an EPA Urban Waters grant that connects students to nature and encourages them to become advocates for the environment.

Grounding Waters is now mentoring 8th and 9th graders from Alliance High School, Roosevelt High School, and George Middle School in Portland. The program targets students in middle school because when you lose students in math and science then, it’s hard to get them back. Many students who have completed programs like Grounding Waters have gone on to college; 25 percent chose science majors.

For me, the work is personal.

I’m from Baltimore and was in the same position as these students. In high school, I was exposed to engineering. In college, I studied mechanical engineering and the Chesapeake Bay. Later, I earned a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at Oregon State University, where I taught as a graduate student. Teaching gave me a new perspective on how to help the environment. I got excited about being able to create change beyond what I could do alone.

Students in Grounding Waters have weekly meetings with their mentors, who are professional men of color from the Portland area who volunteer their time. Twice a month or more, they participate in weekend activities, with black environmental science college student mentors, to learn how the urban environment affects water quality through restoration and conservation activities like removing invasive plants and conducting water quality experiments.

The students will have an opportunity in March 2016 to present at the Black Student Success Summit in Portland on the impacts community members can have on the urban environment. Participants will move full circle from students to educators as they share what they have learned about their watershed. We’re hoping that by seeing the impacts on water quality, they’ll see their connection to the environment. That’s what stewardship is all about.

This project is supported by Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Grant. The Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Grant Program is a public-private partnership program led by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and EPA’s Urban Waters Program. Portland is part of EPA’s Making a Visible Difference in Communities initiative, which provides focused support to 50 communities across the country seeking to become more sustainable.

About the author: Derron Coles is a Principal Consultant with DRC Learning Solutions writing curriculum and supporting youth programs for nonprofit clients like the Blueprint Foundation. While he fully intended to put his civil engineering graduate degree to work in industry, he’s been a dedicated educator for over 14 years.

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