Student Climate & Conservation Congress: Next Generation Environmental Leaders
Throughout the world humans are concerned about environmental threats, but experts say few people have an understanding of how these threats could actually impact their lives. American adults’ attitudes and behaviors about the environment are not matching the urgency of the predicament. More alarming still is a March 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found a waning interest in the environment among 85 to 90 percent of high-school seniors and college freshmen. Fortunately, a brand of young leaders is countering these sobering trends and demonstrating motivation, leadership and passion for improving the environment that sets them apart from their peers. They are spearheading initiatives in their schools and communities, such as starting eco clubs and launching recycling, composting, gardening, energy conservation and wildlife rescue programs. However, many of these young people report feeling isolated in their efforts, which is why the Student Climate and Conservation Congress (Sc3) – one of the Nation’s preeminent student leadership training programs for 9th to 12th graders – is such a critical support mechanism.
“As soon as I heard what Sc3 was, I wanted to be there. I’ve stared at environmental questions for 45 years. I want to be of whatever help I can to the younger generations, to give them hope that they can make the world better. I want them to know I care deeply about them and that an older generation is arm-in-arm with them, no matter how dark it gets.”
— Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams,
2012 Student Climate & Conservation Congress keynote
America’s Conservation Legacy
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that would employ young men to restore America’s parched and soil-eroded land, and leave a legacy of natural beauty for generations to come. By 1942, more than three million workers – representing just 3 percent of the U.S. population at the time – had planted between two to three billion trees, developed 800 state parks and protected 40 million acres of farmland from erosion. In the process of living and working together, the young men learned valuable skills and formed lasting friendships.
The Student Climate and Conservation Congress honors the CCC legacy of connecting young people with nature, educating them to conserve resources and protecting the environment for future generations. First held in 2009, Sc3 is the product of a partnership between Green Schools Alliance and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, W. Va. Set on a 540-acre forested property on the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C., NCTC is the
From Sunday, June 24, to Friday, June 29, 2012, NCTC will host more than 100 high-school students, 24 teachers and 12 guest lecturers for the 4th annual Sc3. The 2012 mission is “to empower outstanding student environmental leaders with the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to address natural resource conservation challenges and to better serve their schools and communities.” Sc3 participants are nominated (often by teachers) and selected from states throughout the U.S. as well as in foreign countries. Once at NCTC, they become Sc3 “U.S. Green School Fellows” and are housed in lodges named after famous conservationists like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Jay “Ding” Darling and Margaret and Olaus Murie. The history of America’s conservation heritage, in the form of photos and letters from these figureheads, adorns the lodge walls and teaches Sc3 student Fellows about these iconic environmental heroes.
Reflection and Recreation
The day’s schedule begins at 8 a.m., ends at 10 p.m. and varies to accommodate a number of different activities from team-building, lectures and workshops to recreational hikes, kayaking and star-gazing. On the first day, students are divided into cohort groups of 10, each led by two or three cohort leaders and one student advisor – a former Sc3 Fellow. Within these small groups, students discuss issues and enjoy five days focused on specific themes, such as art, science or sustainability.
On Sustainability Day, students might take a workshop on green building design and learn how to install solar panels. “On Science Day, kids might attend workshops on pollinators, birds or amphibians,” says Steve Chase, chief of education and outreach at NCTC, and a founding Sc3 member. “There are plenty of outdoor activities, such as studying the ecosystem of a pond, cataloguing flora and fauna, and interacting with FWS biologists.”
Sc3 students must also develop individual Personal Action Plans – year-long commitments to address an environmental challenge that concerns them most. These Plans provide an opportunity for students to put their new leadership skills, knowledge and perspectives into action and to create measurable results in their homes, schools and communities. On the last day, each cohort group presents a creative final project, a video or presentation that celebrates what they’ve learned.
After the Congress has concluded, the Sc3 support network continues. During the course of the year, Sc3 Cohort Coordinators check-in with students to learn about the progress of their Action Plans and offer guidance on project implementation. In addition, each Sc3 student Fellow becomes part of Regional Division Leadership, composed of their region’s Faculty Fellows and Sc3 Student Coordinators. This network can provide further advice and inspiration as well as help organize regional events like state petition drives, “shut off the power” days and conferences. Through commitments made at Sc3, a student may decide to launch a public education campaign, retrofit their family’s home to reduce energy consumption or conduct a campus energy audit. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Skype and the newly interactive GSA website allow Sc3 participants to stay in-touch after the Congress is over, to post photos of their experiences and to watch their videos again.
Inspiring Sc3 Speakers
Sc3 attracts an impressive roster of environmental luminaries, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Nobel Prize winning climate change scientist Virginia Burkett, National Geographic producer/cameraman Lawrence Cumbo, organizer and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, historian Douglas Brinkley and “Planetwalker” John Francis. This year’s keynote speaker is acclaimed nature writer and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez. In addition to Lopez, this year’s Sc3 will include remarks from CNN correspondent and stand-up comedian Pete Dominick, documentary filmmaker Ian “King Corn” Cheney, The Children & Nature Network’s Juan Martinez, green building innovator and LEED founder Rob Watson, as well as senior FWS scientists and officials.
Sc3 2009 students with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The impact Sc3 speakers have on student Fellows is often profound. One speaker who made an impression on Jonathan Richards, a 2010 Sc3 Fellow from Miami, was the ecological designer and architect Mitch Joachim. “Dr. Joachim showed us concept drawings of what sustainable cities, and a sustainable future, might look like. I learned about vertical farming and thought about it a lot when I went home, in terms of the possibilities for the future of agriculture. Putting vertical gardens on buildings in Miami would not only help beautify the city, it could provide food and help cool the climate,” says Richards.
Sara Allan, 19, has attended Sc3 since 2009, first as a participant and then as a facilitator (2010) and mentor (2011). This year she is a college freshman and Sc3 student organizer. “Bill McKibben (Sc3 2011), who was Skyped in, was amazing. The change he has affected is incredible. I think he’s one of the best organizer activists in the world. What some young environmentalists in the movement, like Alec Loorz, are doing is incredible too. Their own efforts have empowered me to go after my own goals, such as setting up my blog and social media consulting company,” explains Allan.
Many students have said Sc3 is remarkable because the adults involved turn over extraordinary leadership opportunities to them. That spirit of warm respect and trust is apparent not only during the Congress itself but behind the scenes where students coordinate many aspects of the conference.
In 2009, James Underberg was 17 and a high-school senior. He was offered the role of student coordinator for the first Sc3. His responsibilities included reaching out to public school districts; handling student registration, health and financial aid forms; maintaining databases; coordinating travel plans; answering questions from parents and helping with conference planning. “Having the opportunity to take on this meaningful leadership role and to assume so much responsibility as a senior in high-school instilled me with confidence. The Green Schools Alliance and NCTC people would ask for my input and treat me like an adult and an equal. For a high-school student, there’s nothing more empowering than an adult giving you responsibility, which says, ‘I know you can do it,’ and then letting you figure it out for yourself,” comments Underberg.
Richards and others have described feeling empowered by the sense of community provided by Sc3. “The main thing that stood out for me was the community feeling. When you’re working on environmental issues, you can feel isolated because a lot of people don’t participate or feel the way you
He recalls fondly when students were split into groups by geographical region. “I really liked that; we got to network with people in our region, to get ideas from them and to talk about the different struggles we’ve had. I think Sc3 is important because it connects students who want to make a difference. Gaining knowledge and having a support network go hand in hand,” explains Richards.
Sara Allan agrees and says that hearing other students talk about the many things they had done intensified her own devotion to sustainability and motivated many participants to want to implement new ideas back home. She says the speakers expanded the breadth of her knowledge on environmental issues and made her aware of just how vast and innovative the field is. “Without my experience at Sc3, I don’t think I would have felt as comfortable joining environmental clubs and running for leadership positions in my first year at U. Penn. I also think it’s great that we’re connected to NCTC/FWS. It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” says Allan.
Indeed, according to Sc3 Student Program Coordinator Eric Estroff, Sc3 Fellows come to understand that they are part of the “web of life” and have a responsibility toward tomorrow. “Through Sc3, we learn to have a voice in decisions being made today. Doing everything from changing light bulbs to protecting habitat to engaging decision-makers; there’s a role for everyone,” he says.
In essence, Sc3 Fellows are a 21st Century mobile conservation corps that is using its new found knowledge to create positive change in their communities.
The 10 Percent
Peg Watson, founder and president of the non-profit Green Schools Alliance, says that at Sc3’s core is the desire to ensure there are future generations of environmentalists. “In a world of cyber environmentalism with fewer students going fishing and camping with their families, where will the next generation of conservationists come from? You protect what you love, and you can’t love what you don’t understand. Getting young people to experience nature and learn about its value is essential if we’re to protect it for future generations,” comments Watson.
Tod Cossairt, Sc3 program co-director and director of sustainability at the Besant Hill School in Ojai, Calif., agrees. “For our students to become change agents in the 21st Century, they need opportunities to engage in conversations about environmental issues; they need real-world experiences; and they need practice. Practice is a key word here because we sometimes forget sustainability is a skill that needs to be taught and learned. Sc3 offers our students these opportunities,” explains Cossairt.
Thanks to Chase, who has “looked under every rock for funding,” FWS has been able to underwrite a significant portion of Sc3 since 2009. The Agency’s generosity provides its own rewards, such as access to a select and diverse crop of future environmental leaders. As FWS employee in charge of
An avid outdoorsman, Chase is personally committed to getting youth outside to experience wild places. After reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2005), Chase helped to organize the National Dialogue on Children and Nature at NCTC in 2006. Sc3 grew out of Chase’s, NCTC’s and Green Schools Alliance’s ongoing commitment to connect young people with nature.
When asked whether he was alarmed by the recent study showing a waning concern for the environment among 85 to 90 percent of young Americans, Lopez replied, “History has always been made by small groups of caring individuals. You take the 10 percent who are concerned and pour everything you’ve got into them.”
Underberg believes the adults helping to organize Sc3 are doing just that. “They give their time and energy because they’re convinced our generation will be the one to address today’s environmental crises. They want to make sure we have the tools we need to start making a difference now,” he concludes.Issue No. 20, 2012
Emily Alix Fano is a media consultant with Green Schools Alliance. She has a Master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University and is a published author whose writing on green schools, biotechnology and the environment has appeared in national and international forums, including The British Medical Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Times and The Ecologist. A passionate environmentalist devoted to the goal of zero waste schools, Fano is an active member of the District 3 Green Schools Group – a coalition of parents creating model green programs in New York City public schools. Fano can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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