May 05, 2010

Seven Students Find Tackling Environmental Issues by Nonprofits is Challenging Work

The environmental Senior Capstone students
Photo by Susan Griffith

Nonprofit organizations can make a difference in environmental matters was the consensus of seven seniors from Case Western Reserve University.

Students participated in a new service-learning, capstone course called Environmental Issues & Community Engagement and gained hands-on experience by working with area nonprofit organizations to tackle some tough environmental issues.

Organized and taught by Elizabeth Banks, associate director of CWRU’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning (CCEL), Chloe Carter, Roxana Crivineanu, Katelyn Haas, Chris Hernandez, Cassandra Pallai, S.K. Piper and Steven Salloum engaged in this community learning experience.

Banks matched their environmental interests to serve in one of the following local environment organizations: Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S), Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District, Earth Day Coalition, Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, and the InterReligious Task Force on Central America.

CCEL partners with community organizations. This capstone had to meet both the needs of the community organization and the university’s learning requirements, Banks said.

The university capstone course had three components: four hours of community based experiences with an organization each week, weekly seminars and a final, 25-30 page research project. The students also wrote monthly reflection pieces about their community experiences and had to take the role of a seminar leader and present work on their experiences.

Students were involved in a range of environmental issues: rain barrel distribution programs to curb runoff from rain, water quality monitoring, deer population management, waste reduction initiatives and environmental education.

“True sustainability will not happen overnight,” Carter, of Toledo, says. “It will take focus and work from the community. With team work and collaboration, progress can be made.”

She worked at E4S and did a research project on Zero Waste initiatives to turn one man’s garbage into another’s resources for new products or energy. In the process, the initiative helps local communities reduce waste going into landfills in Ohio.

Salloum, from Strongsville, attended school along the Abram Creek watershed and never gave it much thought until he walked it during his Capstone experience.

He reported his surprise at its poor condition with pipes and mailboxes sticking out and how the creek ran between the lanes of the Big Creek Parkway. He worked on promoting rain barrels and rain gardens as a way to prevent runoff from soil and lawn chemicals into the watershed.

But his research project differed from the service project and focused on biomimicry or how imitating nature can offer technological solutions. He gave the example of how the bumps on humpback whale fins inspired a design to improve the efficiency of blades on wind turbines.

Pallai’s experience was at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. The environmental studies major with a minor in geology never thought she had an inclination to work with children. After conducting educational classes with third graders in the woods along the Doan Brook watershed that changed.

“I am amazed at how much water quality restoration, environmental education and community-based environmental education goes on there,” Pallai said.

She added that she took away more than her project and research on how to nudge people in certain directions to act environmentally. She gained an understanding of Cleveland and how interconnected all the nonprofits are in working on environmental issues.

“I found it is important to establish a sense of place,” Pallai said. By that she means it was more than understanding the geology but having some basic knowledge about Cleveland such as where the trash is taken.

Joining Pallai at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes was Hernandez. After graduation, the senior from Wharton, New Jersey, will begin work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Virginia. His capstone gave him an experience of working in a nonprofit. He studied white-tailed deer management.

He concluded that a deer population survey is needed because of growing concerns about the deer numbers and impact on residential properties bordering the narrow watershed that runs through Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and also the traffic from the major streets bordering the lakes and streams in the cities.

Once interested in chemistry, Haas will head into the Peace Corps in a few weeks and take up a new life in Sierra Leone.

Haas says she will live closer to the earth over the next 2.5 years than she ever has before in her life. But working with Earth Day Coalition in its community activities with the Student Environmental Congress for local high school students, gave her an appreciation for the need to educate young people about environmental issues.

She noted today’s high school students will be the next generation to work on the environment.

Piper studied the environmental impact of palm oil production and how U.S. aid policies have environmental consequences as part of her learning experience with the InterReligious Task Force on Central America.

This summer, she will serve with the Student Conservation Association as part of a trailwork team with the National Park Service. “This is not just a class assignment, but something I can work towards in the future and gain experience,” she said.

Crivineanu, from Parma, worked with the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District and examined how the consequences of backyard and farmland runoff rich in phosphorous and nitrates from fertilizers have given Lake Erie the new name of “Lake Eerie.”

She talked about changes in the lake that have led to dead zones created by algae blooms that thrive and then die. In the process of decomposing, the dead algae uses up valuable oxygen supplies in the lower layers of the lake that once fed lake bottom plants and animal life.

Crivineanu said, “This was my first true environmental experience.”

“Everyone matters,” she says, adding that each person can make a change that together can be the “band aids on the 1,000 cuts” that save the environment.

The capstone experience is required for CWRU gradation, but sometimes the experience can change the directions of lives. It did for these students.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, May 5, 2010 03:40 PM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, Community Outreach, Environment, Faculty, Research, Students, news, sustainability

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