April 18, 2018

EARTH DAY: Spring fever means students and educators are helping the land and water

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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earth day poster contest

Pictured above: A sampling of student posters from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation's "Conserve and Protect Our Water" contest. See all of the poster contest winners: https://www.dec.ny.gov/education/106423.html

Listen to the pipes of the peepers singing like a choir beyond the houses, by the trees, and you’ll know its spring. The peepers come out of the mud, where they’ve been buried all winter, and give a shout out to the world. The males court the females: it’s all tree frog allure. Their voice is their cologne, their buffed shoes. They remind us: Wake up! The earth needs care and attention!

A SUNY Fredonia chemistry professor who’s been studying plastic in the Great Lakes has some simple and strong ideas on how to change the world — ideas that will make an impact long after Earth Day on April 22.

Stop using single-use plastic. Don’t use plastic bags to carry purchases from any store. Don’t buy products heavily packaged in plastic. Don’t buy bottled water. Use a mug or thermos. Stop using plastic straws — they are incredibly harmful to animals. And use real utensils at picnics, or ask people to each bring their own.

“We are the problem when it comes to plastic pollution…. we are also the solution,” said Sherri “Sam” Mason, professor of chemistry and environmental science at SUNY Fredonia, speaking at a TED talk on why plastic is so toxic and how people can use less.

Mason is a member of United University Professions, the SUNY higher education union, an affiliate of NYSUT. Her research work on the Great Lakes Plastic Pollution Survey has been reported widely in hundreds of media, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and on National Public Radio.

"When we go looking for life on other planets, what do we look for? Water... because to our knowledge there is no life without water. Clean water is fundamental to life sustaining itself. As our society has developed, especially since the adage of 'better living through chemistry', we have continued to utilize this life-sustaining fluid as a garbage bin. We cannot continue to do so," Mason told NYSUT.

SUNY Fredonia, like many of the state’s colleges and universities, works hard to earn a place on Earth Day. Projects around the state include school gardens, recycling events, guest speakers, and field trips to environmental centers, classroom lessons, composting, and much more. An abundance of environmental and Earth Day-themed lessons can be found on Share My Lesson, a site sponsored by American Federation of Teachers featuring free lesson plans from around the country.

At Fredonia, Mason’s activism and the work of many other committed faculty members has taught students about the need for increased personal responsibility, and environmental awareness. This week, SUNY Fredonia students and faculty are taking part in ‘No Impact Week’ in which they will do a “carbon cleanse” to reduce their environmental impact.

Tracy Marafiote, a communications professor and member of UUP, started using the No Impact idea on campus six years ago — initially for her environmental communication students, and then for the entire campus. This year, 85 people have pledged to take on the challenge. Each day focuses on a different aspect: day one is consumption: how much we buy but don’t really need. The challenge is not to buy. The second day theme is trash and consumption: consider the waste you generate. Third: What are the choices you are making when you travel? Could you carpool, ride the bus, walk, ride a bike?

“I live a mile away and typically ride my bike,” Marafiote said — noting she’ll even do so in winter if the roads are dry.

Marafiote recalled that English professor Christina Jarvis and Mason helped form a sustainability committee, and noted that ever since, the college has remained committed to environmental action.

“It set a very strong foundation,” Marafiote said.

Fredonia now uses environmental friendly substance instead of salt on winter roads; nontoxic floor cleaners, and has recycling bins in every room on campus, including the bathroom where wet paper towels are recycled. An annual electronics- recycling day is also held on campus; this year it is April 21.

As for Mason’s groundbreaking research, it involved sailing the Great Lakes — the largest freshwater ecosystem in the entire world. Her team conducted the first investigation into microplastic pollution in Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan, and found plastic particles in each lake, ranging from an average of 7,000 plastic particles per square kilometer, to 46,000.

In a section flowing into the northern Atlantic, they found a quarter of a million plastic particles per square kilometer – rivaling the most polluted parts of the ocean, Mason said.

Plastic contains flame-retardants and other toxic materials that can leach out. And, because plastic is lightweight, easily carried, and durable, it doesn’t biodegrade. It doesn’t get turned into soil like natural materials. The polymers that make up the chemistry of plastic don’t break down, even when in small pieces. Microplastics, too, are found in cleaners and personal hygiene products such as body wash, shampoo.

“They become like little poison pills” that can be ingested by organisms and then up the food chain to people, Mason said, adding that if plastic is “in the water, it’s in us.”

An abundance of Earth Day lessons and events

Whether the conversation is plastic or pollution, many preK-to-college classes are hosting Earth Day events to draw student eyes and ears to environmental awareness.

For example, SUNY Fredonia suggestions for Earth Month 2018 — such as advocating for the use of rechargeable batteries — are actually ones that can be applied year-round.

Meanwhile, in some schools, teachers run clubs to introduce students to environmental topics including wildlife, aquatics, forestry, and soil to help them compete in Envirothon, an outdoor competitive event. Winners on the state level can compete in North American competitions.

School gardens, including organic gardens, have become starring attractions at many schools, where produce is used in the cafeteria, donated to soup kitchens, or sent home with students.

For teachers who want to explore Earth Day with students but may not have time to create a lesson, check out Share My Lesson. There is a school science project science where students color and design brown bags with Earth Day art and principles, and then distribute them at local grocery stores. There are lesson plans on recycling; Earth-Day themed alphabet and numbers cards; a PowerPoint on the earth, sun and moon. Another lesson provides worksheets on how to use a small globe and flashlights to track day and night, cycles and seasons. One lesson shows students how to investigate just how scientists learn about Earth’s interior using meteorites, density and the magnetic field.

The Department of Environmental Conservation is hosting Earth Day events this week at outdoor nature centers around the state, ranging from “Bed Time” at Rogers Environmental Center in Sherburne – preparing garden beds—to hazardous waste recycling day in Utica or an Amazing Earth Day Race at Five Rivers Environmental Center in Delmar. There will be a seedling give-away in Queens. For more information, visit https://www.dec.ny.gov/public/101395.html.

Student winners of the DEC’s Recycle Poster Contest 2018 can be found at https://www.dec.ny.gov/education/69418.html. Student winners of the DEC’s 2018 Preserve and Protect Our Waters poster contest are at https://www.dec.ny.gov/education/106423.html.

A car-free Earth Day will take place Saturday, April 21 on 30 blocks of Broadway from Times Square to Union Square, where environmental programming will be showcased to promote education and action on climate change, sustainability and other topics.

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