‘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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Preparing Students for the Future Through Environmental Education

One of the best parts of my job here in the Office of Environmental Education is meeting creative, committed environmental educators- and getting to recognize them for their work. Until March 13, we’re accepting applications for the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators(PIAEE). We recently reached out to Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches about sustainable energy at the Bronx Design & Construction Academy in the South Bronx. He shared his passion for environmental education and how the award is impacting his work and school.

Why did you become interested in environmental education (EE)? My early exposure to environmental sustainability evolved into to my interest in EE. I grew up on an island where residents use renewable energy to meet their electricity needs. After college, while in the United States Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, I worked on sustainable community development, focusing on agriculture and identifying solutions to soil erosion. Finally, I ended up in NYC; I’ve now been teaching in the same high school for over 10 years. Over this time, I’ve developed a passion for bringing environmental and energy literacy into urban education. I’m deeply interested in teaching our students about the interaction between energy and our urban environment, how to identify environmental problems, and most importantly, how to solve these problems in a sustainable way.

What role does EE play at your school? I work in a Career & Technical Education school, the Bronx Design & Construction Academy and have always been motivated to teach our youth about sustainable technologies through the lens of EE. My students are learning about economics and the environment, and how this relates to the building trades (electrical, plumbing, carpentry, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning and pre-engineering). Focusing our vision around environmental issues, such as climate change, reflects our school’s mission to provide 21st century Career & Technical Education.

How has winning the PIAEE award impacted your work and your school? The PIAEE Award – the result of my last 10 years of environmental work in the South Bronx – has really allowed me to strengthen and solidify the environmental projects I’ve always been working on at my school.

The award helped highlight and recognize our next big project: building the Energy-Environment Research Center. This center will:

  • Provide a model educational center where both students and community members can study renewable energy systems
  • Showcase cutting-edge renewable energy systems at street level for students, professionals, academics, engineers, and visitors to learn from
  • Provide an off-grid emergency power facility that can be used by the community during power outages and times of need
  • Power an off-grid greenhouse to grow organic produce for sale to the community

This award also allowed me to meet a group of incredible teachers working tirelessly in the field of EE. It’s very powerful to share our experiences; we definitely learned a lot from each other.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about teaching EE or any helpful advice you can offer to your fellow environmental educators?

EE helps our students make connections between human health and the earth’s health, identify anthropogenic factors that affect the earth’s ecosystems, and recognize symbiotic relationships that connect us with other organisms on our planet. Understanding these connections motivates them to action. To everyone teaching environmental education – keep up the great, vitally important work!

If you’re a K-12 teacher combining enthusiasm for environmental protection with a passion for teaching, consider applying for the PIAEE. Applications are due March 13, 2015. Thanks to Nathaniel and all our previous winners for their dedication. Keep up the good work!

About the author: Nathaniel Thayer Wight grew up on the San Juan Islands, located in the northwestern corner of Washington State’s Puget Sound. After completing college and a 2-year Peace Corps service, Nathaniel moved to NYC and completed an M.S. degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Nathaniel has worked in the same high school building in the South Bronx, NYC for the last 10 years. A passionate environmental, energy and sustainability educator, Nathaniel enjoys helping students make connections between environmental problems and sustainable technologies. When Nathaniel isn’t teaching about sustainable energy, he can be found traveling with his family, playing guitar, working in his urban garden, and spending as much time as he can with his wife and baby daughter Sol.

Emily Selia works on communications and outreach for the Office of Environmental Education at EPA. In her free time, she’s doing her best to get outdoors as a volunteer naturalist, engaging children in learning about their local ecosystems.

Nathaniels installs a green roof with students on a Saturday morning

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

A PIAEE Winner’s Path Forward

By Gerry Reymore

Greetings from Vermont! The snow is falling and the temperature is a chilly 20 degrees. As a teacher, I’m busy starting the second half of the school year. If your school is anything like ours, you don’t have time to even blink from now until graduation in June. The rest of the school year just seems to fly by.

This year is especially exciting for me as a winner of the 2014 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE). This award recognizes K-12 teachers who connect students to the natural world around them and use innovative methods to teach environmental education. I’m proud to be one of the 2014 recipients. I received financial support for my training, and my school received financial support too. I challenged my students this year to brainstorm what we can do with the school portion of the funding.

We agreed to focus on water and incorporate that theme in as many ways as we can. We’ll be updating our water sampling lab equipment, which will allow us to test water samples at our homes and from the local brook that runs behind our school and into the White River. Our town is building a new water treatment plant and we’ll be working with the town to understand water science from a municipal perspective. Finally, we’ll be installing a remote weather station and a water sampling station in our sugarbush (the forest of maple trees where sap is harvested for syrup). With this equipment, we can sample and test rainwater to relate its properties to the health of the forest. Information we gather will be shared with the Proctor Maple Research Center of the University of Vermont.

As for me, I plan to use this award to improve my understanding of water and the environment, but from a different standpoint: engineering. This summer, I plan to study the Erie Canal in Central New York. I would like to focus on the engineering and construction of this historic project and look at the environmental impacts to tie engineering into my teaching. I can see plenty of lesson plans and lab experiments for next year’s class coming out of this experience.

Applications for the 2015 award are now being accepted. If you’re a stellar teacher who is passionate about environmental stewardship and actively incorporating environmental education into your teaching, I highly encourage you to apply for PIAEE.

EPA, I cannot thank you enough for this opportunity to learn more about a subject I’m deeply committed to and to give my students a richer learning environment.

Have a great second half to the school year.

About the author: Gerry Reymore is the Environmental Resource Management Instructor at the Randolph Technical Career Center in Randolph Vermont. Before entering the teaching field 10 years ago, Gerry was vice president of a large Forest management and aerial mapping company in New England. He has a BS in Natural Resource Management from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY and a MSE in Civil Engineering from the University of Washington in Seattle. WA.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.