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Center for Environment’s Summer Explorations engage students in environmental matters

SALISBURY – The students waded in vernal pools to scoop up water scorpions and whirligig beetles. They
confronted socio-ecological issues in an effort to better understand the ramifications of climate change.

They pondered whether technology could save biodiversity. The Center for the Environment at Catawba College offered one-day summer exploration workshops in June and July in lieu of its annual National Environmental Summit for High School Students.

“The pandemic prompted us to offer these workshops, which allowed the high school students to explore topics in small groups, often through hands-on experiences,” Center Director  John Wear said. “We hope to offer the summit next year and may continue the workshops as well.”

Catawba professors taught seven workshops. Dr. Mercedes Quesada-Embid, associate professor of environmental policy and advocacy, taught workshops titled “Advocacy Workshop on Climate Justice” and “Sustainability Leadership through Art and Music.”

In both sessions, Quesada-Embid’s aim was to offer participants critical knowledge.

“I wanted to generate a shared sense of empowerment, and remind them that intentionality in
leadership, a steady pulse of understanding on community needs and ecologies, and creative communicative approaches are part of a healthy way forward for a just transition to a more sustainable world,” she said. Participant Grace Eppiheimer, a rising sophomore at Gray Stone Day School in Misenheimer, wants to pursue a career that allows her to help combat climate change, so she was particularly interested in Quesada-Embid’s workshop. She learned about the interconnected nature of race, class and gender in the context of climate justice.

Quesada-Embid notes that that interconnectedness — the concept of intersectionality – suggests that “the socio-ecological issues that confront us and the cultural identities within us are dually an overlapping lens and tool which provide a clearer understanding of the climate reality and what is needed to remedy it.”

Chloe Redfern, a rising junior from Lexington who wants to pursue a career in environmental engineering, was interested in the intersectional nature of social categorizations. She was fascinated by the examples of local people who are making a difference in their communities.

“You can make a difference without being famous,” she says. Redfern was especially glad to be with other young people who have a passion for the environment. “The best part was meeting people who shared my interests,” she says.

Lisa Pope, adjunct instructor with the Catawba Department of Environment and Sustainability, taught three workshops: “BioBlitz 2021,” “The Vernal Pool Survey Project” and “Climate Action through Urban Forestry 2021.”

In the BioBlitz workshop, participants raced against the clock to identify and record as many wetland organisms as they could in a particular area of the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve on the Catawba campus. The aim was to determine if there was a rise or fall in the population of a particular organism.

They studied four groups: mammals, like coyote and river otters; amphibians and reptiles, like spotted and marbled salamanders; fresh water invertebrates, like predaceous diving beetles and dragonfly nymphs; and terrestrial invertebrates, like centipedes and millipedes. “They learned basic survey methods to assess ecosystem health,” Pope said.

In another of Pope’s workshops, students studied the preserve’s vernal pools, depressions where water is present part of the year. Students examined organisms in three sizes of vernal pools as well as in the moving water of Grant’s Creek.

“Some organisms are highly sensitive to pollution so that can tell us a lot about the health of the ecosystem,” Pope says. “If the water is clean, it will have hellgrammites and dragonfly nymphs. If you find leeches in the water, the quality is poor.”

Riley Crotts, a rising senior at Davie County High School in Mocksville, was especially interested in this workshop.

“These swampy pools hold so much life that you would never be able to tell by just looking at them,” Crotts said.

She wore waders so she could get into the water and find macroinvertebrates. “Without these vernal pools, the macroinvertebrates would be eaten by larger predator species and would throw off whole ecosystems,” she says. “I was intrigued by how these small pools could make such a big impact.”

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