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Engaging students on climate change

February 27, 2014
By SHAUN KITTLE ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Brian Stillwell is on a whirlwind tour of North Country schools.

The energetic associate program director of the Alliance for Climate Education, a national nonprofit organization based out of Oakland, Calif., launched a blitz of 12 schools in the region to inform students about how they can take action against climate change. The five-year-old organization now has offices in 14 cities, including New York and Boston.

The tour began Friday, Feb. 21 at Saranac Lake High School and continued that day at Lake Placid High School, where Stillwell explained that getting individuals involved is the first step toward reducing the worldwide problem. Other stops include North Country Community College in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake High School.

"Even after the two years since I've been involved, I've seen students and adults are coming together to create sustainable solutions in their communities," Stillwell said. "These students are catalyzing Lake Placid. All of those initiatives are going to be in the public eye. They're having conversations with adults, and they're really driving these things forward. I think it all starts with the summit and that core group of student leaders being fired up."

Stillwell's tour spun off of the fifth annual Youth Climate Summit at The Wild Center natural history museum in November in Tupper Lake. That event was attended by 193 students from 27 schools from as far away as Albany, and a cadre of climate-minded speakers, educators, scientists and farmers who spoke and led workshops on climate science and sustainable practices.

Stillwell spoke at the climate summit and is now on a mission to visit some of those schools to help their environmental clubs inspire their fellow classmates and to give them pointers on how to implement their own eco-aware ideas.

"If you think about climate change, youth are the people who are going to be most affected by it," Stillwell said. "They're going to be living through the impacts if we don't get moving, so they have the most at stake. It's really key that they are stakeholders and that they are at the table, represented in these decisions."

The presentation wasn't developed to be a sounding board for Stillwell, though. It was really a chance for Lake Placid's environmental club, the Champions of Change, to share with their classmates how they've put their own initiatives into motion and encourage others to join their cause.

In a video made by the club's members, they each revealed projects that are underway or will be in the near future. Those projects ranged from getting more locally grown foods into the cafeteria to the already-functioning hydroponic and aquaponic gardens.

The projects do more than teach the students about how to fight climate change. They also require research, planning and communicating with adults to move forward.

So far, the students have been quite successful. Some of their successes include bringing recycling and a water bottle refilling station to the school.

"They created a system where they they collected all the paper waste in the school, brought it to the transfer station and weighed it to find out how much it would've cost to throw it away," said Champions of Change advisor Tammy Morgan, a high school science teacher. "Then they brought it to the recycling plant to recycle it, so they were able to figure out exactly how much money the school would save by recycling paper."

After that, the students were able to segue into getting the school to recycle other materials, like metal and glass.

The students have also built two systems for growing food using aquaponic and hydroponic technology.

About 30 heads of lettuce have been harvested so far using hydroponics, which involves using water and fertilizer - and no soil - to grow plants.

Aquaponics is a similar system that cycles the water past the plants and through a fish tank. The water from the fish tank carries fish waste, which contains nitrogen to fertilize the basil plants the students are growing. Before the water returns to the fish, it passes through beads, which are a medium for bacterial growth. The bacteria converts the ammonia produced by the plants to nitrates, which the fish need, and the cycle continues.

That cycle is not unlike the cycle of involvement facilitated by the Youth Climate Summit.

"We send kids to the youth summit, and that's what gets them excited and moving forward on these projects," Morgan said. "Other students see these projects, and now we have Brian (Stillwell) coming in, and he energizes the rest of the kids to make them want to get involved, too. It's getting to the point where we have more students who want to go to the summit than we can send, and that's a good thing."



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