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Event sparks high schoolers' interest in environmental issues

by Sherry Fisher - October 14, 2008


Gary Robbins hands out small plastic containers to a group of high school students gathered at a water well off Horsebarn Hill Road.

“Let’s move back so we don’t get wet,” says Robbins, a professor of natural resources management and engineering, after he shows students how to retrieve water with a bailer. One of the students dips the plastic tube into the well with Robbins’ guidance, while the other youngsters prepare to have their bottles filled by classmates.

These inner-city teens, who would probably never get to witness the workings of a water well, were participating in a workshop on groundwater. The event was part of Environmental Action Day, a high school student environmental education conference held on Oct. 3.

The some 130 teens who participated in the event are part of the Center for Academic Program’s Upward Bound/ConnCap, GEARUP, and Educational Talent Search.

The goal of the conference was for students to gain a better understanding of the environment and learn about the protection and appropriate use of natural resources.

Students attended workshops throughout the day, where they learned about environmental and food safety concerns about genetically modified crops; the basics of hand-held GPS systems for map data collection; the benefits of forest ecosystems; water quality and pollution prevention; and green chemistry. The afternoon ended with a service learning process and project development “call to action.”

Workshops were led by UConn faculty and staff.

Karen Filchak of UConn’s Cooperative Extension System told the students that they all have a role in protecting the environment:

“People don’t do things to harm the environment intentionally. They need to learn more about how what we do affects it.”

She added, “We hope you will be energized to go back to your school and develop a plan that takes that next step and puts into practice some of the things that you’ve learned. You are the future, so it’s really important to have you all begin to think in terms of not just today and tomorrow, but what effect you’re going to have on the world.”

From left Juan Antonio Soto, Francheska Gonzalez, Rafael Rivas, Troy Alexander, and Luis Hernandez, all high school students, collect well water samples during Environmental Action Day Oct. 3.
From left Juan Antonio Soto, Francheska Gonzalez, Rafael Rivas, Troy Alexander, and Luis Hernandez, all high school students, collect well water samples during Environmental Action Day Oct. 3. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

Cameron Faustman, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, talked to the students about the College’s programs and encouraged them to consider UConn for their education.

After the workshops, students started to put their awareness into practice. Working in teams, they brainstormed about the environmental needs of their communities, discussing why it would be important to focus on a particular issue, on both a community and personal level.

The topics they came up with included air pollution, water issues, smoking, litter, and graffiti. They will work on the projects at their high schools.

Troy Alexander from Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven said he enjoyed the hands-on activities.

Asontwa Bryant from James Hillhouse High School in New Haven enjoyed the event. “Come interested and you won’t leave here without learning something,” she said.

Maria Martinez, director of the Center for Academic Programs, said the event sparked students’ interest in careers dealing with the environment. “Before the program, I asked the students how many were thinking about careers in the environment, and only a few raised their hands,” she says.

“At the end of the day, the same question was asked and many more hands went up.”

The event was sponsored by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Cooperative Extension System, the Connecticut Jr. Science and the Humanities Symposium, the Center for Academic Programs, the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, and the Year of Science.

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