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

image of Finding Our Way award winners
Finding Our Way award recipients with program administrators Dr. Theodora Pinou and Carol Ball

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.

Shristi Ramakrishnan, of Danbury, won the first place award for her in-depth research into the use of microbeads in consumer products and the harm they cause to the environment and wildlife. Ramakrishnan studied labels of skin products and initiated an email writing campaign to CEOs of major retailers, to the companies marketing these products and to Danbury School principals asking for change. CVS responded detailing its efforts to remove microbead products from stores, and Beiersdorf personal-care company explained its efforts to remove microbeads from its skin care lines. Ramakrishnan created posters about microbeads for the Danbury Public Schools and will deliver a presentation about microbeads to 8th graders at Broadview Middle School.

Sahil Patel, of Danbury, explored and took action that addressed a range of watershed stewardship issues, including organizing a group clean-up at Candlewood Lake and North Ridge, creating a website to spread awareness about pollution that features his blog, inventing a method to stop water pollution worldwide, and creation of posters and images to raise awareness of water pollution issues. His efforts earned him the second place award.

New Fairfield resident Braedi Caraher, recipient of a third place award, undertook Frogwatch training to become an official frog-watcher. Three nights a week, she visits the same pond and listens for frogs, logging her data into a national database.

Abby Riolo and Petra Cirella, of Bethel, also earned third place honors for their combined work detailing the environmental impact of a new housing development planned for their town. Their Powerpoint presentation, revealing the projected effects of 25 acres of trees being cut and animals and helpful bacteria displaced, was presented to the Bethel First Selectman and members of the town Planning and Zoning board.

An honorable mention award was presented to Mia Dannucci, of New Fairfield, who researched watershed protection and created a brochure she delivered to her neighbors about ways to safeguard the local water supply. Dannucci’s focus was on pesticide reduction and recommended alternatives such as encouraging birds and bats to control the insect population.

Two Danbury Public School Teachers also were recognized, Joy Pires and Jeff Brewster from Broadview Middle School. Pires received the 2018 Finding Our Way Classroom Engagement Award for her implementation of hands-on water conservation activities learned during her program training into her classroom lessons. Activities included measuring and monitoring in-school personal water consumption, and teaching students about cellular respiration through the biodiversity found in different types of mud. Brewster received the 2018 WCSU NOAA B-WEST Stewardship Classroom Award for his hands-on classroom activity of growing and releasing fish in Kettletown Park. He is a strong advocate for watershed conservation and associated habitat protection, and the anadromous fish training activity he experienced in this program helped him bridge his love of the environment with the priorities of the B-WET program and the new Danbury Public Schools NGSS-aligned curriculum.

Finding Our Way partners with WCSU’s Weather Center, The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation 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 six 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 and Olympic-size indoor swimming pool on the Westside campus. Family science meetings during the academic year provide support for parents to complete on-line content training and certification, habitat use analysis experiments, participation in a Tri-State Weather conference, and overnight travel to and and NASA space station.

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 are selected by lottery from Bethel, New Milford and New Fairfield.

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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