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Middle schoolers from Bethel, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Haven and Wilton honored at ceremony: WCSU partnership with NOAA yields research, results, awards

image of 2019 Finding our Way award winners
2019 Finding our Way award winners

DANBURY, CONN. — Dr. Theodora Pinou, professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences and faculty curator of the H. G. Dowling Herpetological Collection at Western Connecticut State University, runs Finding Our Way: An Experiential Watershed Learning Program for Middle School Children and Their Families, an environmental science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills education program.

With a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pinou brings students from regional middle schools to WCSU to provide a wide-ranging educational experience focusing on water resources and ecosystem biodiversity as part of the NOAA Office of Education’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) Program.

WCSU, Danbury Family Learning Center and Danbury Public Schools collaborate on the program, which offers 30 seventh-grade middle school students and their families a yearlong integrated environmental community stewardship experience focused on New England watersheds.

The Finding Our Way program recently held an awards ceremony, the WCSU NOAA B-WET Stewardship Awards, to recognize the outstanding work done by the program’s participants. The program hopes to make this an annual event.

Award winners

1st place – Joshua Maruffi, Westside Middle School Academy. His stewardship focused on learning about and helping several kinds of wildlife – birds, bats and pollinators. Maruffi built and installed several habitats at his house, recorded frog calls and tracked bird development. He involved younger students by leading a Cub Scout troop on a trail cleanup.

2nd place – Esther Ribeiro, Bethel Middle School. Ribeiro engaged the public with a well-designed website that educates on several environmental themes, particularly on waste reduction. She also built a compost bin to reduce food waste, fed ducks, planned a method of protecting sea turtle eggs and created an engaging baby activity book using recycled materials.

3rd place (tie) – Sabrina Serpa Smith and Marisol Tapia Rodriguez, Westside Middle School Academy. Their project is continuing, but they have already planned and executed important steps to improve pollinator diversity at their school. Smith and Rodriguez planted native plants and built benches for their school’s outdoor classroom in coordination with school officials. They also established a school “Green Team” in which they lead younger students in restoring and developing the wildlife habitat.

 3rd place (tie) – Juliet Dahlstrom, Westside Middle School Academy. Dahlstrom learned about composting and built a bin in her yard. She also cleaned an extensive local trail adjacent to a stream, collecting 26 pounds of garbage.

3rd place (tie) – Sereen Amezzane, from New Haven. Amezzane is home-schooled. She researched the problem of pollution from straws and gave a presentation on sustainable straw options. She engaged other students by having them sign a pledge not to use plastic straws.

Honorable mention – Joshua Hatter, Westside Middle School Academy. Hatter cleaned up a park and worked to improve his school’s recycling system. He worked over a long period creating flyers and speaking to classmates to encourage compliance in using school recycling bins.

Honorable mention – Matthew Waldron, Rogers Park Middle School. His project, to encourage lunchroom recycling, is in planning stages and will be implemented during the 2019-20 school year. With his school’s environmental club, Waldron will create a recycling bin for single-use plastic utensils and work with custodians on proper disposal. Additionally, he will create an incentive program using raffle tickets to reward students for bringing in their own utensils.

Participation Awards

Participation Award – Megan Iolova, New Fairfield Middle School. Iolova’s awareness of the widespread use of plastic straws has inspired her to meet with her school principal to reduce usage.

Participation Award – Jake Ledan, Bethel Middle School. Ledan approached his town’s First Selectman to install a town moss garden to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, improving the air quality of Bethel. He has monitored moss growth factors at his home and is expanding the moss environment there.

Participation Award – Diego Soto, Broadview Middle School. Soto’s project explored the pollution mitigating properties of moss and possible ways to use it to reduce car exhaust contaminants.

Participation Award – Tyler Tang, Middlebrook School, Wilton. Tang conducted a garbage clean up along the Norwalk River Valley Trail. He also put up posters at school water fountains to encourage refilling and reusing water bottles.

Teacher Awards

2019 WCSU NOAA B-WET Stewardship Classroom Award – Carrie Rowe, Teacher and Environmental Club Leader, Rogers Park Middle School. Rowe was recognized for encouraging environmental stewardship in the school community through leading the environmental club and fostering Matthew Waldron’s lunchroom recycling initiative, a program that will continue throughout the 2019-20 school year.

2019 WCSU NOAA B-WET Stewardship Classroom Award – Jonathan Neuhausel, Magnet School Coach, Westside Middle School Academy. He was recognized for fostering hands-on science learning for students through a renewal project of the Outdoor Habitat area. Neuhausel encourages all students to make stewardship a part of their daily lives.

Finding Our Way partners with WCSU’s Weather Center, the Candlewood Lake Authority and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society to study the life cycle and behavior of organisms that rely on the watershed for resources. It also works with the NOAA Fisheries Lab in Milford and FirstLight Power Resources to learn about sustainable clean energy such as biofuel and hydroelectric power, and to examine the cost and benefit of such resources in terms of impact on local fish populations and associated habitats.

With the help of Praxair, the yearlong family program was able to include a 12-day summer enrichment experience, two family science summer events and four family “Science Saturdays” during the academic year. The program is housed at WCSU and uses facilities at the university’s two campuses in Danbury, including the computer science and library facilities and Weather Center on the university’s Midtown campus, and the Nature Preserve on the Westside campus. Family science meetings during the academic year provide support for parents to complete online content training and certification, habitat use analysis experiments, participation in a Tri-State Weather conference, and Skywarn Weather Monitoring training.

The 12-day summer enrichment program hosts a variety of science and math experiments and field trips, providing students with a head start in STEM fields, as well as building a foundation of environmental stewardship and literacy. The program integrates writing, skills building, recreation, reading, data analysis and teamwork. By the end of the summer, teams of families led by their students develop bilingual public service announcements in the language of their choice.

Selected middle school science teachers receive 28 hours of professional development during the fall and spring to develop, implement and refine their fresh water-related classroom. They also are hired to work the summer experiences, which adds another 60 hours to their STEM training.

Additionally, science teachers are trained to integrate NOAA Ocean Literacy program with Next Generation Science Standards in their classrooms.

Reaching out to disadvantaged, minority and female students, the participating schools include Broadview Middle School, Rogers Park Middle School and Westside Middle School Academy. Ten additional students were selected by lottery from Bethel, New Fairfield, New Haven, Ridgefield and Wilton.

For more information, contact Carol Ball, Finding Our Way Science Education Outreach Coordinator, at (203) 837-8753, or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.



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