Students learn to go green

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 23, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Julie Williams of Moore County did things you might expect at a National Environmental Summit for high school kids.
She and her “small group” braved the summer’s toughest heat and Catawba College Ecological Preserve’s largest mosquitoes to radio-track turtles, often from a kayak.
“I’ve had mosquito bites in places I didn’t know you could have mosquito bites,” Williams said Saturday.
Granted, Williams has interests that lean toward environmental science — she’s interested in marine biology. But the overriding message to Williams and all the 72 rising high school juniors and seniors this week has been to look at the big picture through “whole systems thinking,” find ways to collaborate and bring all your talents to the table.
So it wasn’t surprising to find the participants, many who come from high school environmental clubs, expanding their toolbox of skills through things such as creative and persuasive writing, improvisation, story circles, debate strategies, history lessons and critical thinking.
Catawba College Center for the Environment teamed with the prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute to offer the five-day summit, called “Redesigning the Future.”
The summit winds up today.
Study topics
Small group topics were things you might expect: wildlife, energy conservation, waste, trails, climate change, sustainability, global warming and the like. But the summit’s overall approach was different.
“We want to show them we need all their talents — not just the scientist,” said John Wear, director of the Center for the Environment.
The participants represented 12 different states, mostly in the Southeast, but as far away as Maine and California. They stayed at the college’s Abernethy Village and ate in the school cafeteria, while spending much of their summit time at the center and on the 189-acre preserve.
Days started with breakfast at 7 a.m., and lights went out at 11 p.m.
Because of the heat, night hikes were popular.
“We’ve learned these high school students want to be challenged,” said Cathy Holladay, director of operations for the center. “They want to reach further than what they’ve seen in the high school classroom.”
Stewardship of the earth is important to these kids, even if some of them aren’t going into scientific fields, Holladay said.
Leaders in training
A big goal of the summit is to better equip the students and encourage them to return to their schools and communities as leaders for change.
“They all come to appreciate others’ interests and talents,” said Amanda Lanier, program coordinator for the center. “And these kids are definitely passionate.”
Wear told the students Saturday they had heard some important messages:
• How a single person can make a difference.
• Even though it’s likely they’ll face multiple setbacks in life, they must keep going.
• They are reaching a defining point in their lives, when they’re ready to start making decisions on their own.
• Many issues confronting society today are failures in people’s ability to understand whole systems. “We don’t dig deep enough into issues to find the underlying problems,” Wear said.
• Nature holds many of the answers — always providing a blueprint to the directions they should take.
• Collaboration is a great tool for creating effective campaigns to solve a problem and change behavior.
One of Saturday morning’s exercises asked the kids, working in groups of eight and nine, to use community-based social marketing to change behavior. Groups were charged with encouraging communities to recycle, conserve energy or reduce food waste.
They confronted each assignment by identifying the barriers to making a change, setting goals for a program, establishing new community norms, finding ways to communicate and planning a campaign.
The students’ ideas included everything from celebrity endorsements to tailgate parties — but all the ideas included a whole systems thinking approach.
“I like everything about it,” Emily Nye of Shippensburg, Pa., said of the summit and how systems thinking, as espoused by the Rocky Mountain Institute, “opened our eyes to a lot of things.”
Kevin Kauffman of Asheboro said he learned there are other ways of doing things that help the environment.
Jessica Hipskind, an Indiana junior, said she gained new insights into writing about the environment. The summit also has given her new ways of thinking and shown her the importance of collaboration, she said.
“Having everybody’s insights help solve the problem,” Hipskind added.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.