The hub for environmental education professional development

Students Inspiring Community Involvement

Joel Naatus, co-founder of Project Reservoir, is on-hand for the next couple days (Friday, Sept.15 - Wed. Sept. 20, 2017) to answer any questions that our DEI eePro Group members may have about his innovative STEM based after school program highlighted in this week's blog. Please take advantage of his expertise and insights to encourage student learning and community engagement in your EE efforts!

Hi Joel-
Thanks for sharing your time and enthusiasm with us this week! Can you tell us how the idea for Project Reservoir was born? What is the goal(s) of the program? And which community partnerships were formed to make this program possible?

This sums up what got us started from an interview- I just did with the City of Jersey City “Our projects are based around a community issue, almost always environmental, and related to something with water that's involving STEM activities: science, technology, engineering and math. Our goals are to provide a team environment for students engaged in STEM that often do not fit the typical athletic type and to let them explore, engage, and learn in nature in our densely populated city, that allows children very little access to nature at their own houses, neighborhoods, and schools.

Project Reservoir started about 6 years ago. We all started working together and going to a local abandoned municipal reservoir. That's where it started: a classroom of kids, our highest achievers. We entered the Disney Planet Challenge. We were state champs the first year. The next year, we won it. So, the kids got a trip to Disney Land.

It snowballed from there. We started looking into what other types of science competitions we could enter. We came up with the idea to form teams. So Project Reservoir is now team-based. We've been pretty successful. We've won some sort of national award every year. Our most recent award was the EPA Presidential Environmental Youth award for Region 2 last year.

Project Reservoir is outside of the curriculum. It's an enrichment program. A lot of the students are getting ready to go to high school. That's when they need to make some decision on a career path. The reservoir is our learning lab.

The “Stormies” STEM team is designing a storm drain filter that uses hydrophobic materials that can filter water, doesn't impede flow, but can still capture motor oils and any type of petroleum products. Our plastics team is also designing a filter system for washing machines. Plastic microfibers from washing machines get into the ocean and can harm fish. A big part of our project for each team is also maintaining social media, a website and public outreach by attending community events (farmers market at local park, concerts in park, community celebrations with a booth, and through educational activities for the public at the reservoir.

We have a good group of 4 teachers. We are a team as well. It’s Tuesdays and Thursdays and some Saturdays. There’s 62 students presently. Eight teams. We had well over 100 students apply this year.

Some of our science projects don’t just stop in June, especially when you have living plants and animals. So it’s a big sharing effort to keep the project going." In addition we fund our teams by getting community sponsors just as a baseball team gets sponsors for little league. We attend local events at our city parks, that are often walking distance from our school. This is a key factor for community engagement in that students are able to get there on their own-an advantage of living in a densely populated city-things are close by and often walking distance.

Sounds like a natural draw tapping into your student's natural curiosity and need to explore wild places in the city, Joel. Did you run into any challenges in securing parental or family support for their children' s extracurricular activities? Here in LA, I've run into cultural differences in which young Latina students often become torn between fulfilling family obligations at home or pursuing career opportunities after school and often the parental home demands win out. I'd be interested in hearing how you gained parental support in the early program days.

For us (teachers and school administrators) it has been an advantage to having students from Latin American or immigrant backgrounds and specifically Latinas in that they have more time, than the traditional upper middle class child, to devote their energies to these projects (these are not children who typically run from piano to soccer to a tutor and almost all of them never go to summer enrichment camps). I have also found parents from foreign cultures allow for more teacher autonomy in activities- by having in school lab activities outside of the curriculum on a daily basis before school or even during lunch, it adds validity to the project/gives students a sense of being on a team (family) to care for the living things in the lab or in the field. The living aspects of our project draw in students and families (we often have parents at our reservoir when we are working there or helping out at free community events) We try to be as flexible as possible also by allowing students to bring their younger siblings, whenever possible. Early on one of the most important things to break down this potential barrier of family reluctance was by allowing leadership by the student (especially by giving academically advanced girls a chance to lead/teach in a classroom or at a city public event) We had summer school and Saturday STEM camps in the fall taught by our students (flipped classroom) and this chance to be involved in a team in leadership role without family cost filled a niche that families needed for their children. Check out some yesterdays work at the Reservoir to understand a little bit what our students do at the reservoir- maintaining trails through phragmites designed and built by students at our school (follow this link to look at some of their work from a previous STEM team Phrag Attack This community ownership and leadership aspect is what breaks down barriers.

Phragmite maze trail maintenance

Great to hear how you nurtured family involvement, Joel. Was the partnership with the non-profit for the natural area and community sponsors also easy relationships to build? Any tips for success that you can pass on to us in our capacity building efforts?

One of the things that has resonated with having a team (logo made by students), business cards, social media accounts for teams (facebook, twitter, instagram), team shirts (with sponsors names on shirts), and students presenting community events bringing their STEM projects with them. This opening of projects with the community has created an opening in the community where local businesses have been willing to donate money for team shirts and even lumber for a indoor aquaponic garden. See link or our STEM team that won nationally in the Lexus Eco Challenge for 2016

To build capacity within a community be willing to focus on local problems, build a team with distinct skill sets, research solutions, dream/try/ and be willing to fail. Take advantage of the digital media skills many students already have and get them out of their comfort zone-this brings them together as a team (muddy reservoirs are great for that with very urban students).
Be willing to ask your local politicians or government agencies for support for your local community environmental issues, but do it in way as a partner. We have worked with our local water company that is global company and in this relationship we try to make sure our public communication is not confrontational, but addresses an issue in a scientific manner with evidence. Have students make PSA's about the issue they are interested in. See video

Another thing is try to adapt student interests to a community environmental issue and local government will often try to help out or partner with your students. We created a STEAM team that focused on drones as an environmental tool to monitor our urban tree canopy. They won first place in the Lexus Eco Challenge and were doing something they were really interested in. See their website to understand.

On the local non-profit issue, I volunteered my own time with the organization and spent 3 years as a board member of the Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance and I am now the president of the non-profit as a volunteer. There is sacrifice of time, but it is worth it to be part of the community in a manner similar to what I did as Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. I live in the community where I teach and see my students at the park, in stores, see environmental issues on my walk to work, and about everywhere I go. This has been invaluable to be able to just walk over to a science project at the reservoir to gather data for a project or to check on something we are working on. The other teachers I work with on our project also live here and a couple of them grew up in the neighborhood or the city (this has opened up many doors by leveraging their many connections in the city). Our diversity as city has been a strength for our student STEM teams and we are lucky to live in a place that is used to people from varied backgrounds. People in Jersey City are willing to open up to anyone willing to work, be nice, and be yourself.

Living and working in the local community with supportive homegrown colleagues who bring an extensive community network is an ideal environment for EE capacity building efforts. You state that the folks in your diverse city "are willing to open up to anyone willing to work, be nice, and be yourself." Do you mind elaborating a little further about what additional considerations, if any, you think about as you nurture such community and student/family relationships as a white male in such a diverse community? Often, Caucasian individuals may be mistakenly perceived as entitled or privileged by the communities of color whom they may be attempting to build relationships with. As an educator and community member, do you find yourself playing the role of a white ally? circling back around to this discussion, unfortunately Joel and I both got pulled into the start of the school year...he especially called into mobilizing this year's Project Reservoir Teams. In his absence, I can share from what I know from work associates and friends who are serving as white allies in advancing inclusion and equity their efforts:
their success in their communities is due to their sincerity in approaching folks not typically included in EE programs or decision-making; they have a strong sense of self-humility and an openness in learning about other folk's background and how best to align common needs or perspectives around their planned EE programs; they realize they are building a supportive community or seeking entry into an established community and do not need to be the sole EE voice, but understand that like- minded community members are naturally drawn to serve as ambassadors who understand the overlap of the EE program and community needs and can serve as authentic stakeholder voices in support of the EE effort.

Any other thoughts by our discussion board readers would be greatly appreciated!...please add your thoughts, experiences and observations below!:).....