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NYC Students Learn Hands-on Science

Sponsors for Educational Opportunity sends high school students to ESF

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Twenty rising high school juniors from New York City spent a week at ESF in August immersing themselves in hands-on science.

The students came to ESF through the New York City-based non-profit organization Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO). This was the fourth year the college partnered with SEO in an effort to interest more under-represented students in environmental science and related fields.

The students were on campus Aug. 5 to 10. During their stay, the SEO students worked with ESF faculty, staff and the ESF Science Corps, investigating the interface of urban environmental science, environmental health and engineering viewed through an environmental justice perspective.

From the moment the students arrived, they were "immersed in hands-on, minds-on activities," said Jacob O'Connell, outreach program manager.

The scholars worked with Dr. Lemir Teron, Department of Environmental Studies, exploring the lexicon of environmental justice (EJ), and took a walking tour of the neighborhood just west of campus. The tour included visits to the Dr. King Elementary School gardens and Wilson Park, and a discussion about Interstate 81.

The visit to Dr. King Elementary School had an impact on Shelda Francois, a junior at the Brooklyn College Academy High School. When she saw how close I-81 is to the school, she said one of the priorities should be to protect the children. "Environmental justice includes where we work, play, live, pray and learn - these are areas we are supposed to protect so they can be in good condition," she said.

In the case of Dr. King School and I-81, she thought a tunnel would be the best solution to keep the interstate and protect the children's learning environment from increased traffic and noise. Francois' interest in environmental science and justice and injustices lead her to the ESF/SEO program. "I thought it would be good to see how to make a better and safer environment for ourselves and to protect it for those who come after us," she said.

A session with Dr. Lee Newman about environmental health and biotechnology was particularly fitting, said O'Connell. "It was timely given the links to environmental justice and the number of SEO students interested in the medical side of STEM," said O'Connell. The students also met with Eric Viskupik, admissions advisor, over dinner.

Work with Dr. Neal Abrams in the chemistry lab on water quality parameters set the stage for a trip around the Onondaga Creek watershed. The students toured the Onondaga Creek Corridor, stopping to make observations and take measurements at four sites: the Inner Harbor, Kirk Park, the Dorwin Avenue OCCRA Drop Station and Tully Farms Road. They took the samples back to the lab for testing.

The students also engaged in a trap net survey of fish in Onondaga Lake and learned about the lake cleanup and the Haudenosaunee's relationship to the lake.

"It's been fascinating to watch the students take in a ton of information, learn the lexicon of environmental justice, the principles of environmental justice and how to look for environmental injustices and take in the cultural and ecological history of Syracuse and apply it to the things happening in their own neighborhoods," said O'Connell. Students worked in groups on projects that were presented to ESF faculty and staff at the end of the week.

"People talk about environmental justice all the time," said SEO scholar Christopher Jacome, "but no one really goes out to see what needs to be fixed … there are things we can change in our own cities."

Jacome, a junior at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, said he's going to apply what he learned to his apartment building where people aren't aware of the proper way to separate trash and recyclables.

"What I can change is how people put their trash and recycles out. People throw recyclables in the trash and trash in the recyclables and it makes everything a pain to clean up. It's not only annoying, it means people don't know that the environment is something they have to protect and think about when they throw things out," he said. Jacome plans to start a campaign with signs and one-on-one conversations with his neighbors on the proper way to separate trash and thereby protect the environment.

SEO Scholars is a free eight-year academic program that supports low-income public-school students through their high school and college years. The program has a 95 percent college graduation rate. ESF Trustee Leslie Talbot, who has been involved with the SEO Scholars, helped foster the relationship between the college and program.

The students' trip to ESF is part of SEO's effort to expose the students to a range of academic and career possibilities. The participants will begin their junior year in the fall.