Science Education

EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment , Nifty Fifty , Science Education , STEM , USA Science & Engineering Festival

By Ken Olden, Ph.D.

 

EPA "Nifty Fifty" scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

EPA “Nifty Fifty” scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

Is there something in this world that you would like to see changed? Disease, hunger, health care—I believe we all have things we want to change. That desire for change is how I got to the position that I am in today.

I grew up on a farm along the Appalachian Mountains in rural Tennessee, among the worst poverty in the United States. We were poor, hungry, and I didn’t like the environment in which we lived. I looked around my community and I knew that if we wanted something to change, one of us would need to break out and become a leader. So I thought, why not me?

I decided then that I needed to work hard, go to college, and keep going until I acquired the education to become part of the leadership class. I shined shoes before and after school for 15 cents a pair—that’s how I paid for my first year of college.

I started at Knoxville College in 1956 and earned a B.S. in Biology. Then I earned a M.S. in Genetics from the University of Michigan. After that, I earned my Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Biochemistry from Temple University in 1970.

I made history when I became the first African American to direct one of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Today, as the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, I have a platform from EPA, one of the nation’s top environmental and health organizations, for addressing the issues and problems I’ve wanted to see changed since I was a kid.

Picture of Capital City Public Charter School

Capital City Public Charter School, Washington, DC.

Recently, I had the opportunity to share these experiences with students at the Capital City Public Charter School. I was asked to speak at the school as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s “Nifty Fifty (times 4)” program. The program is linking 200 noted science and engineering professionals with middle schools across the Washington, DC area. My fellow “Niftys” and I are sharing stories about our science and career paths throughout the current school year.

I asked the students if there was anything in the world they would like to see changed. One student wanted to change how people perceive hip-hop. Another wanted equality for women in the workforce. Every student agreed that there was something they wanted to see changed.

My question back to them was: “Why not you?”

You have your lifetime ahead of you to make a difference. Everything that has been discovered to date—it’s all just the beginning! There are just as many possibilities for discovery now as there was when I was in middle school. You can make those discoveries and you can make a difference.

I didn’t like seeing health disparity or people living in unhealthy environments when I was their age, and I wanted to change things. I set out in 1956 to make a difference and at 76, I can say I have lived a good life—I have had the opportunity to make a difference. Now it’s their turn.

About the Author: The Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Dr. Ken Olden has published extensively in peer-reviewed literature, chaired or co-chaired numerous national and international meetings, and has been an invited speaker at more than 200 symposia.

Dr. Olden has won a long list of honors and awards including the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award, the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award for sustained extraordinary accomplishments, the Toxicology Forum’s Distinguished Fellow Award, the HHS Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the American College of Toxicology’s First Distinguished Service Award, and the National Minority Health Leadership Award. From 1991-2005, he served as the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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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You Can Make A Difference: How I Became a “Nifty Fifty”

By Ken Olden, Ph.D.

 

EPA "Nifty Fifty" scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

EPA “Nifty Fifty” scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

Is there something in this world that you would like to see changed? Disease, hunger, health care—I believe we all have things we want to change. That desire for change is how I got to the position that I am in today.

I grew up on a farm along the Appalachian Mountains in rural Tennessee, among the worst poverty in the United States. We were poor, hungry, and I didn’t like the environment in which we lived. I looked around my community and I knew that if we wanted something to change, one of us would need to break out and become a leader. So I thought, why not me?

I decided then that I needed to work hard, go to college, and keep going until I acquired the education to become part of the leadership class. I shined shoes before and after school for 15 cents a pair—that’s how I paid for my first year of college.

I started at Knoxville College in 1956 and earned a B.S. in Biology. Then I earned a M.S. in Genetics from the University of Michigan. After that, I earned my Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Biochemistry from Temple University in 1970.

I made history when I became the first African American to direct one of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Today, as the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, I have a platform from EPA, one of the nation’s top environmental and health organizations, for addressing the issues and problems I’ve wanted to see changed since I was a kid.

Picture of Capital City Public Charter School

Capital City Public Charter School, Washington, DC.

Recently, I had the opportunity to share these experiences with students at the Capital City Public Charter School. I was asked to speak at the school as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s “Nifty Fifty (times 4)” program. The program is linking 200 noted science and engineering professionals with middle schools across the Washington, DC area. My fellow “Niftys” and I are sharing stories about our science and career paths throughout the current school year.

I asked the students if there was anything in the world they would like to see changed. One student wanted to change how people perceive hip-hop. Another wanted equality for women in the workforce. Every student agreed that there was something they wanted to see changed.

My question back to them was: “Why not you?”

You have your lifetime ahead of you to make a difference. Everything that has been discovered to date—it’s all just the beginning! There are just as many possibilities for discovery now as there was when I was in middle school. You can make those discoveries and you can make a difference.

I didn’t like seeing health disparity or people living in unhealthy environments when I was their age, and I wanted to change things. I set out in 1956 to make a difference and at 76, I can say I have lived a good life—I have had the opportunity to make a difference. Now it’s their turn.

About the Author: The Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Dr. Ken Olden has published extensively in peer-reviewed literature, chaired or co-chaired numerous national and international meetings, and has been an invited speaker at more than 200 symposia.

Dr. Olden has won a long list of honors and awards including the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award, the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award for sustained extraordinary accomplishments, the Toxicology Forum’s Distinguished Fellow Award, the HHS Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the American College of Toxicology’s First Distinguished Service Award, and the National Minority Health Leadership Award. From 1991-2005, he served as the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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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Reaching for Cleaner Skies in Hong Kong

By Gayle Hagler

Skyline of Hong Kong on a bright day

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a city of contrasts.  As a civil engineer I find Hong Kong to be a stunning city—efficient and affordable subways navigate from one island to another, skyscrapers perched on mountainous terrain survive typhoon-force winds, and elevated walkways over busy roads make it a very pedestrian-friendly city.

However, this beautiful and advanced city is frequently masked by heavy smog that results from both local pollution sources as well as pollution transported into the city from outside regions.   Facing rising vehicle ownership and energy use, Hong Kong and its neighbors in the Pearl River Delta face an enormous challenge to improve their local air quality.

I recently spent a month in Hong Kong as part of the Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows program.  My assignment was with the United States Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau, who requested an air quality research fellow to provide technical expertise on local air quality issues.

With a 13-hour jet lag to overcome, my brainpower may have been somewhat weak for the first few days, but many cups of Chinese tea kept me going!  During my stay, I provided technical presentations at local universities, nonprofits, and at the consulate.  I met with the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, gave educational outreach lessons at several middle and high schools, and even had a few minutes of time on the local radio.

Encouraging students to take an interest in their region’s air quality issues was probably one of the most rewarding parts of my assignment.  Standing in front of a class of high school students in Hong Kong, I displayed a map of the Pearl River Delta region. The map showed the heavily populated southern area of China that includes major cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen with an urban population the size of California and Florida combined. I asked the students, “If I could give you equipment to measure air pollution at seven different locations in the Pearl River Delta, where would you put the monitoring equipment?” The students gathered in teams, going through a mock research study that included everything from developing research questions to deciding whether or not to buy steel-toed shoes as part of their safety equipment.  At the end, I showed them the seven locations, selected by a team of Chinese and American scientists, where I helped install the monitoring equipment and analyze the data many years ago as part of my graduate studies in environmental engineering.

The mock research experience seemed to strike a chord with the students, who were surprised to discover that studying air quality involves a wide variety of academic disciplines—ranging from engineering to public communications—and a good deal of teamwork.

At a recent gathering of experts throughout China as well as international air research colleagues, one of the presenters, Dr. John Watson of Desert Research Institute, noted that “cleaning the atmosphere is like home improvement projects, there is no such thing as a small job.”  But through international collaboration and sharing of knowledge, we all may benefit from advancing air quality science and reaching for cleaner skies.

About the Author:
Dr. Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer researching air pollution in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory and is located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  She recently spent part of the fall of 2013 as an Embassy Science Fellow working at the U.S. Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau.

Editor’s Note: The Embassy Science Fellows is a partnership between U.S. federal technical agencies and the Department of State to provide scientific and engineering staff to serve in short-term assignments in U.S. posts abroad. The goal of the program is to provide expertise in science, mathematics, and engineering to support the work of embassies, consulates, and missions of the State Department while providing international experience to EPA staff.

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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My Confidence in Future Young Scientists

By Thabit Pulak

EPA guest blogger Thabit and friends

The students were taking part in “enrichment clusters,” sessions in which they learn about one important public issue in depth. I was invited by 2nd-grade teacher Ms. Claborn to visit her cluster on water purification and to present a real-life example of a water filter.

I had recently worked to develop an affordable filter that removed not only bacteria and contaminants from water, but also arsenic, a poisonous substance that affects nearly 150 million people across the world today. I had the opportunity to present my water filter at the 2012 Intel International Science Fair, where I won 3rd place and EPA’s Patrick J. Hurd Sustainability Award. The Hurd Award included an invitation to present my project at the annual National Sustainable Design Expo, which showcases EPA’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) program.

STEM in the classroomI presented the filter to the class and answered questions, learning just as much from them as they did from me.  I was invited to stay for the remainder of the cluster, where the students were putting final touches on their own water filters. Ms. Claborn gave each of the students some muddy water to run through the filters. It was exciting for me to see the children’s smiles as they looked at the clean water slowly trickling out of the open edge of the soda bottle after traveling through the sand and rocks. The filters were based on a water filtration activity that EPA designed specifically for students.

Afterwards, I was invited to attend the upcoming STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) exhibit that the school was hosting. The students’ mini filters would be on display, and I was invited to display my filter alongside theirs. As the stream of curious parents and students came in, I gladly talked about both what the students did and my own filter, and what this means for the future of environmental sustainability issues like water.

This was my first opportunity to present my work outside of my school and science fairs. I felt very honored and happy to be able to give something back to the community. I hope to find ways to keep doing so!

 

About the Author: Guest blogger Thabit Pulak of Richardson, Texas was the winner of the Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2012. As part of this award, he was invited to attend and exhibit at the National Sustainable Design Expo, home of the P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability in Washington, DC. He was also the recipient of the 2013 Davidson Fellows Award

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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DISCOVER-AQ: Reaching for the Sky with Student Citizen Scientists

By Dana Buchbinder

NASA aircraft takes off.

DISCOVER-AQ aircraft takes to the sky. Image courtesy of NASA.

As school reopens with bouquets of newly-sharpened yellow pencils (as they say in the movies), even recent graduates like me get swept up in the excitement: a new season of academic discovery! This fall, an EPA partnership with NASA is helping the next generation of students experience the thrill of air quality research first-hand.

During this mission, named DISCOVER-AQ (the “AQ” stands for “air quality”), our team will employ the help of young “citizen scientists” in Houston to test new compact sensor technologies for measuring ozone and nitrogen dioxide air pollutants at the earth’s surface.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

A science teacher and EPA researcher stand beneath a new compact air sensor students will operate at a Houston, Texas public school.

Citizen science is a style of research that encourages inexperienced and even very young participants to help with professionally organized research projects. Volunteers collect simple field data that would be difficult for the lead researches to gather without many hands. If projects inspire awe, discovery, and insight along the way, well, that was part of the plan.

The multi-year DISCOVER-AQ project uses airplanes and ground-based instruments to help scientists better understand how to measure and forecast air quality globally from space. My colleagues recently installed compact ground-based devices for the third of four DISCOVER-AQ field missions. The devices—small enough to be held in one hand—were placed at eight Houston area public schools. EPA-trained teachers will lead their students in operating the new air monitors. Elementary, middle, and high school students will contribute the data they collect to the EPA research team, helping professional scientists develop needed updates to methods of standardizing air quality measurements across the country.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

Compact air sensor that students will operate as part of the EPA-NASA project DISCOVER-AQ.

EPA DISCOVER-AQ researcher Dr. Russell Long reports, “The school’s principals and teachers are very excited about what’s going on; they say it’s a great opportunity for their students.” These educators have already requested that EPA scientists working with the schools to ensure high quality data will double as guest speakers for the classes, helping kids make the connection between book science and research in action. The scientists are thrilled to participate. We are fine-tuning a set of air, climate, and energy activities to support the project’s science concepts in classrooms.

NASA partners also see the project as a unique opportunity for sharing their work with young people. In the NASA component of the project, pilots will fly aircraft fitted with air monitoring equipment at scheduled times over the schools. The flight data will be matched with ground-based data to help researchers measure air pollutants that permeate the air column. Students will be able to talk with the pilots during these coordinated fly-overs while they watch the planes approach on a tracking app and then zoom overhead!

DISCOVER-AQ is science far beyond the laboratory. The experience will be unmatched for hundreds of students who may not have considered science as a captivating career before. These student scientists can feel proud they’re contributing to fundamental research to help NASA and EPA protect human health and the environment. I look forward to hearing what the students find out!

About the author:  Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor supporting EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy national research program. She enjoys working on Rachel Carson-worthy projects that help scientists, pre-scientists, and non-scientists “rediscover…the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

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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Summer Isn’t the Only Thing Heating Up!

By Natalie Liller

EPA Climate Change Program

EPA Climate Change Program

My friends couldn’t believe that, instead of sleeping till noon, I was spending my first week of summer vacation rising early to attend a Climate Change Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Research Triangle Park, NC.  My interest in climate change had grown since my AP Environmental Science class, and I applied, yearning to find out what I could do to help combat the impacts of rising global temperatures. The EPA Climate Change Program was the way to go!

The first morning of the weeklong program arrived, and I jumped into my car – with a cup of highly caffeinated coffee in hand of course – and embarked into unknown territory.  As I approached the EPA, I could only gaze up and all around in awe of its grandeur.  Such a large building, but what and who did it hold? I couldn’t wait to get started and meet people just as interested in the cause and curious about what careers climate change could offer.

The Program’s 31 students had the privilege of meeting with and hearing from scientists, researchers, analysts, and more — from EPA, NC State University, Duke, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Alliance for Climate Education.  Students came from high schools all over central NC: Panther Creek, Northern, Enloe, Riverside (go Pirates!), and many more.

We learned about greenhouse gas emissions, global impacts of climate change, environmental policy, and ways to reduce the impacts of climate change. It was engaging and thorough. I couldn’t help but be inspired by the enthusiasm of my peers – asking questions, providing input and opinions, and being curious about a speaker’s work and career path.

The program was full of hands-on activities. One included building particle sensors to monitor atmospheric carbon and another focused on pretending we were researchers in frigid Greenland. Each activity offered us a chance to use our hands, work collaboratively, and have fun. Even more so, we were offered a taste of what climate change careers.  It is encouraging to know that opportunity is out there—that I can take my knowledge and love for the environment anywhere I chose. I can combat global climate change from a cubicle, focusing on computer models, or I can engage in field research halfway across the world.

The program opened doors, connected me to a network of people I would not have met otherwise, and made me realize I can make a difference in my home, my school,  my community, and worldwide. Now, let’s go fight climate change and save the world!

About the Author: Natalie Liller is a rising senior at Riverside High School in Durham, hoping to pursue a career in politics with a concentration in environmental policy. She was excited to participate in EPA’s 2013 Climate Change Summer Program. Learn more about the Climate Change Program.

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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The Village Green Project: An Opportunity for STEM Enrichment (without the Lab Coat)

By Kelly Leovic

FinalLogo_KLThankfully, all hands in the classroom eagerly shot up when I said, “Raise your hand if you are a human.”  I began by explaining to the fifth graders that our job at EPA is to protect human heath and the environment. I then asked if they breathe, eat or drink, or play in water.

As the director of EPA’s STEM (which stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”) outreach program in Research Triangle Park (RTP), I’m always eager to find ways to engage our scientists, engineers, and other employees in science outreach and education.

We give presentations, share hands-on activities, mentor, and regularly participate in community events. Each year, more than 200 employees (~10 percent of our RTP workforce) participate in at least one outreach event. In 2012, we participated in 171 school events, 100 of them at schools serving low-income populations.

While one of our objectives is to inspire students to gain an interest in science and the environment, one of the challenges is giving them a taste of how much FUN scientists can have doing field work (they don’t just work inside decked out in white lab coats and geeky protective goggles).

One solution: the Village Green Project!

The Village Green Project is a prototype solar-powered air monitor that EPA scientists developed to place in a central location for about one year.

We explored several possible partnerships for the Village Green site and are excited to announce that it will soon be installed at the South Regional Branch of the Durham County Library, whose design theme is conveniently “Air!” This location fits our key criteria, and we are excited to join forces with the library’s existing outreach program to share STEM enrichment opportunities.

Additionally, the library is located across from Lowes Grove Middle School, which will become a STEM magnet school in the fall of 2013. EPA has participated in STEM outreach at Lowes Grove for several years, and we are excited about the opportunity the Village Green Project will offer our scientists who teach after-school Citizen School Apprenticeships.

Instead of talks and showing pictures about what scientists do, we will be able to leave the lab coats and goggles behind and walk outdoors to experience REAL FIELD WORK. It may just be fun enough to inspire some future scientists!

About the author: Kelly Leovic is the director of EPA-RTP’s STEM Outreach Program and has worked for the EPA as an environmental engineer since 1987. She enjoys spending time with her three teenagers (really!) and plans to bring them on a field trip to see the Village Green Project.

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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Field Days: Learning what Air Quality Scientists REALLY Do

By Erika Sasser

EPA scientists demonstrate air pollution research equipment with students.

EPA scientists demonstrate air pollution research equipment.

So we’ve all seen those crazy moon suits that people wear when they’re trying to clean up an oil spill or work on a contaminated waste site, but how many of us have actually gotten to wear one?  Thirty lucky seventh-grade girls from the GEMS (Girls Empowered by Math & Science) program organized by Winston-Salem State University got a chance to do just that at a special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach event on July 19, 2012.

A group of EPA staff (all women, and mostly scientists, except for a few interested hangers-on like me!) manned five different stations to introduce the girls to the world of air pollution measurement fieldwork.  Our hope was to free them from “talking about” science and let them actually get their hands on the instruments and equipment we use to measure the pollution around us.

Each station gave the girls an opportunity to experience a different aspect of “life in the field.”  They were able to pick ideal case-study sites for air pollution measurements, explore a field tool bag, and figure out what size solar panel they would need to run monitoring equipment in the field.  They demonstrated their expertise with a wire stripper to connect wires between a battery and an LED light.  We’re proud to report that all the teams got their bulbs to light up!

Fulfilling the role of “an assistant volunteer with no prerequisites but enthusiasm,” I helped with the air quality monitoring equipment station.  Here we used a fan and a particle generator to simulate air pollution from an event like a forest fire.  The girls had fun changing the anemometer’s wind speed and direction readings by blowing on the sensors, testing the particle counters, and turning on the salt-water particle generator.  Fortunately there was an expert on hand to answer all their questions!

And since the day wouldn’t have been complete without shopping (always popular with teenagers), the field safety station was set up to allow them to try on and “purchase” safety gear for different environments (like respirators and protective suits) within a set budget.  Hopefully they learned a lot about protective field gear, and we got some cute pictures out of the deal!

The girls also went on a building tour of EPA’s award-winning, LEED certified facility.  But according to them, the best part of the day was getting to eat lunch in EPA’s beautiful lakeside café!

About the Author: Erika Sasser is a Senior Policy Advisor in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.  She works on air quality and climate change issues.

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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