Delia Susurret, now Deputy Director of the Harbor Science and Arts Charter School in upper Manhattan, got involved with an organization called YouthCaN when she was trying to develop a science curriculum at the River East Elementary School. "YouthCaN was more than a help. It was the mechanism that enabled us to get environmental science and technology and schools and kids all incorporated in mindful, purposeful learning," she says. Her third and fourth graders' first YouthCaN presentation described their two-year study of the Harlem Meer, an artificial pond at the northeast corner of Central Park. "We had real talks with the scientist in charge of maintaining water quality and levels. These elementary school kids studied pH levels and water chemistry," Delia recalls. Her students learned to enjoy the Meer with their families, and to use it as a living lab in a way that was impact-free. "They learned to become stewards, because if you put energy into an environment and get involved with it, you're going to take care of it," says Delia. She appreciated the way the program "involved lots of different people in the real science: the kids, their families, and the district community."
|Tips from Jay Holmes for kids who want to start a YouthCaN program in their community:|
Begun in 1993, YouthCaN is a youth-run organization that gives kids who are concerned about the environment an opportunity to think and work on a national and international level. The organization's Web site invites "teachers, students, schools, environmental clubsall youth and educatorsto join with us in facing the challenge of becoming better stewards of our environment." YouthCaN uses the Internet to connect participants, share ideas, and plan conferences at which kids present environmental projects to their peers in grades 1-12. Students can participate at three different levels: by joining the Planning Committee, by working on a project during the year and presenting it at the annual conference, or by simply attending the conference and its workshops.
The year-round program culminates in a conference held each April in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. Approximately 150 students present environmental projects to like-minded kids from around the world. Participants must submit an application, and attendees, who number around 1,000, must sign up in advance. Submissions for the 2001 conference, on the theme of "What Kind of an Eco-Footprint Will You Leave on the World?" came from Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Togo, Lebanon, Slovakia, Egypt, Belarus, Brazil, and Estonianot to mention Pennsylvania, Florida, and Brooklyn and the Bronx. "We've always had a fairly global reach," says Jay Holmes, YouthCaN Coordinator for the American Museum of Natural History. Other groups around the world also host their own versions of YouthCaN conferences.Any Device Will Do
Technology is integral to YouthCaN's mission, since students who can't travel to New York make presentations via live video-conferencing, and collaborate year-round though e-mail and listservs. "We use any technology we can get our hands on," says Jay, recalling a group of first and second graders from a small rural school in Washington State who first connected eight years ago via a device called a Lumaphone, "a desktop telephone that sends a still black-and-white image, displayed on a little screen on the receiving phone. You can port it out to a large video screen, and that's just what we did," Jay explains. The kids were working on habitat destruction around a local pond, and when people at the conference asked, "Isn't there someone in town you can talk to?" the kids got all excited. They took it to the city council, who decided to get involved, "and last year, by full-frame video-conference, they reported on the completion of restoration project," reports Jay.
Other projects have a more global reach. A group in Florida has been working for years with students in Haiti on a solar cookers project. "This year they've raised enough money to send two solar cookers to Afghanistan as part of a relief effort. These large box ovens can cook 800 loaves of bread a day, even in winter," Jay says. The subject matter of presentations varies widely, from school gardens and PCBs in the Hudson River, to global warming and protecting ocean fisheries. So does the form they take: presentations range from big theatrical performances to hands-on workshops for small groups. Many people simply attend the conference, but Jay notes that the prospect of presenting is "an important motivational tool that gives a focus to student projects across the whole year."
When students are truly engaged, geographical distance becomes almost irrelevant. Delia vividly recalls a virtual exchange between her Harlem students and a group of kids in Argentina who took a park and made it a national preserve. "At the conference we were in direct telecommunications contact, and at the exact moment when the video connection was supposed to go live, the electricity in Argentina went down. Their science teacher ran home, got a mobile generator with enough power for a telephone, and we conducted the exchange over the phone at the American Museum of Natural History only a couple of minutes late," she recalls. "It was incredible. The room was full of kids we had never met from elementary schools all over the city, and the questions had to be translated from Spanish, but these kids were so impassioned about the environment, you could hear a pin drop."
|Tips from Trudy and Delia for teachers or facilitators:|
You need to be enthusiastic about some aspect of the study of ecosystems so you can communicate that passion.
Don't do it alone:
Typically, a school group or some sort of club will develop a project. At the Academy of Mount St. Ursula in the Bronx, where Gertrude (Trudy) Battaly has taught science for 13 years, the club is called EcoSci, and members have been participating in YouthCaN conferences since the school's inception. "The kids and I usually start off the year with a couple of jam sessions about topics that might interest them. I even throw ideas at them over the summer," Trudy readily confesses. This year her high schoolers are doing a presentation on development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Each of the 15 or so students researches a different aspect of the topic. Then they bring the research together, outline it, and organize a PowerPoint presentation. "One of the wonderful things about YouthCaN is it that it combines the study of ecology with the technology of the day," Trudy points out. "PowerPoint is great because the kids can add sound and visual effects." Her students think of all kinds of ways to make sure the final presentation is engaging, from preparing transparencies for an overhead projection to creating models, skits, games, even songs. "I used to be a computer programmer, and I wasn't making any changes in the world. I still may not be, but there are lot of kids who are doing a lot of thinking that they wouldn't otherwise as a result of YouthCaN," Trudy maintains.Creating Leaders and Good Global Citizens
Teachers who work with YouthCaN serve as mentors, facilitators, and support staff. A "side" workshop at the conference called TeachersCaN offers support and informal professional development to interested teachers. Like the conference itself, the focus of TeachersCaN changes every year to reflect current environmental issues and teachers' technical and social concerns.
YouthCaN is unique among environmental programs in that it's entirely student-run. "I'm a facilitator. I make sure they have the equipment they need, suggest some deadlines, guide them a bit. But I never tell them what they have to do," Trudy explains. "They do all the work." She sees an enormous payoff. The kids learn a great deal about ecology, they acquire research skills, they learn to work cooperatively, and they make effective presentations, "all those things that make someone a good citizen who can think critically about the environment," in Trudy's words. "YouthCaN is great because it's really the kids who are running the show," seconds Delia. "And they're the ones who are going to become the next stewards of our world."