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.

Finding Out About Moss

By Amy Miller

On my own land, I move things about willy nilly. If I need a pine tree for Christmas, I cut one. If I want a blueberry bush closer to my house, I transplant it. I love that.

So I was hot to trot one morning to move a lush patch of moss carpet for a moss garden-in-a-pot.

Not so fast, said my Finnish neighbor and dog walking partner. Moss is not to be taken lightly. It takes years to grow one little itsy bitsy handkerchief of moss, she said.

Really? Really. Everyone in Finland knows this.

OK, I said. And walked on dejected. I can’t even move moss on my own land?

And yet my fantasy in moss lingered. So I checked around. I couldn’t find out how long moss takes to form (anyone know?) but I did learn it transplants easily. And that some people consider it a nuisance, although the Japanese use moss to add a sense of calm, age and stillness to a garden.

I already knew moss grows in wet, shaded areas. But I also learned that although moss thrives in moisture, its leaves can withstand drought for quite some time. Also, I learned that moss patches are made up of thousands of little plants bunched together. They come from spores, and create thin branches that dig into the ground and replace roots. But they get their nutrients from the air, not soil, which is why they can grow on rocks (and aren’t thrilled with compost).

The four requirements for moss are acidic soil, shading, moisture and humidity. They like soil between about 5 and 6 on the pH scale.

Many nurseries don’t carry moss so it may be best to get it from a garden – yours or your neighbors (with permission of course). Moss is happy if you also transplant the soil or wood under it. If you are trying to put moss on rock, recipes for success involve a blender, buttermilk, water, sometimes yogurt and always a brush.

Truth be told, I couldn’t find much information on moss formation in the wild. One site said it takes about 18 months for moss to fully form, but once established, it can keep growing for a long, though undetermined amount of time.

With no big warnings in site, I am going back up my hill. I hope the Finns will forgive me.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.


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.