What Does the Environmental Science Program Really Do?

In the last issue of the Conservators Newsletter, I wrote about what it is like from my point of view to take on the running of the Newton Environmental Science Program, an environmentally-focused summer program for teenagers. It’s a lot of work, but it is exciting and gratifying in a lot of ways.

Various people have asked me, “Why should kids sign up for the program?” or “What does the program do for kids?” I think the parent of any student who has been in the program knows the answers to those questions, but this article is about what I have seen as a parent of a kid in the program (over several years), and now as the Executive Director.

On the surface, what you see first are kids who come home talking excitedly about the program and the other kids who are in it, laughing and telling stories about what they did during the day. Pretty soon, other kids from the program who you haven’t met before start showing up at your house and over time some become good friends of your kid. Our son made friends with kids he met in “Envi Sci” and we got to where we setting extra places at dinner on a regular basis. I discovered that they were good kids.

You find out that the kids have been learning about ecology, are using words like “biome” and “vernal pool”, and are taking water samples of the Charles River to check for water quality and monitor pollution. You hear that one kid gave a public speech about the lichens on Mt. Washington that take years to grow back if you step on them.

During one summer, our son and two of his friends rode their bikes to Brown Middle School every day (about 5 miles one way), then hiked several miles on whatever the daily trip was, then rode their bikes back home. They canoed 10 miles on the Charles, hiked at Blue Hills and Mt. Monadnock , then carried 40-plus pound packs up the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase” trail on the three-day trip to Mt. Washington . By the end of the month, those kids were really buff! They were also confident in their abilities to hike and to handle working in a group.

But I think there are longer-term effects of the program that take time to see. One student leader is planning to study outdoor resource management as a career, probably working with wildlife and forestry. Another is sailing on a research ship in the Pacific, learning about oceanography. Another is working at the Appalachian Mountain Club “huts” in the White Mountains , supporting conservation and back-packers who enjoy the wilderness. Others have gone on to work in environmentally focused companies , including one that develops special products for containment of hazardous materials.

Adults often talk about getting kids off the couch, or away from the TV or computer video games, and getting them outdoors. We like to discuss building kids’ self-esteem and teamwork skills. This program actually does that. It encourages kids to pay attention to the environment, and to the government’s public policy decisions. I think it builds a real understanding of the consequences of people’s actions, or inactions, in relation to the environment. I think it also gives the students in the program a sense of personal responsibility and an incentive to take action on their own. And all of this while having fun!

Considering the alternatives, those are impressive results. Find out more about the Environmental Science Program at our website, by phone at 617-969-0288.

David Backer