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“Smart and Connected Communities NYC” STEM Colloquium Speaks to the Power of Public Engagement in Environmental Justice and Stewardship

By Heather Flanagan
June 28, 2016
BOP-CCERS fellows, plus BOP Schools and Citizen Science Program Manager Sam Janis, Principal Investigator Lauren Birney, and Reseach Associate Joyce Kong

BOP-CCERS fellows, plus BOP Schools and Citizen Science Program Manager Sam Janis, Principal Investigator Lauren Birney, and Reseach Associate Joyce Kong

One of the most exciting aspects of the BOP Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science (BOP-CCERS) is that it’s a collaboration of a huge, diverse community of myriad talents who are all passionate about New York Harbor restoration and authentic, hands-on STEM education.  We’re fortunate that the STEM CCERS network fosters an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas at events like this month’s STEM Collaboratory NYC™ CCERS Colloquium, “Smart and Connected Communities NYC,” hosted by BOP-CCERS partner Pace University.  The evening brought together environmental law and policy experts, scientists, technologists, and educators for panel discussions and presentations, with BOP-CCERS participants both on stage and in the audience.

The Environmental Law and Policy Panel featured, from left to right: Murray Fisher, Stephen Kass, Sean Dixon, and Debbie Mans, moderated by John Cronin

The Environmental Law and Policy Panel featured, from left to right: Murray Fisher, Stephen Kass, Sean Dixon, and Debbie Mans, moderated by John Cronin

The Environmental Law and Policy Panel was moderated by John Cronin (Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs at the Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Pace University) and included:

  • Sean Dixon (Staff Attorney, Riverkeeper)
  • Stephen L. Kass (Senior Environmental Counsel and founder of the Environmental Practice Group at Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP)
  • Debbie Mans (Baykeeper and Executive Director, NY/NJ Baykeeper)
  • …and our own Murray Fisher (Executive Director, New York Harbor Foundation and Co-founder of the Billion Oyster Project)

John Cronin started the panel with a nod to our region’s environmental justice history (a history he is very much a part of!): “When you’re in this part of the world, you’re at the heart of the modern environmental movement.”  He highlighted Storm King, the seventeen-year legal battle over a proposed Con-Ed hydroelectric plant in the Hudson Highlands starting in 1962 that is widely considered to have launched the modern environmental movement.  With Storm King, for the first time “you had the right to defend the natural landscape.”  He noted that the laws and policies that govern oysters in New York are from another time and that “environmental policy, like the harbor, is a living thing…it has to change.  It can’t get stagnant.”

The Environmental Law and Policy panelists discussed physical obstacles to a restored harbor, like microplastics and Combined Sewer Overflows, as well as policy obstacles like New Jersey’s ban on oyster restoration activities and the siloing of harbor-related management in different government agencies, rather than an integrated approach that treats the ecosystem as a whole.  Panelists observed that even without explicit barriers from the government, we have federal and state laws that are supposed to end pollution, but no mandate that specifically says we have to restore oysters.  They concluded by exploring possibilities for shaping public policy towards restoration goals.

The STEM Innovations presenters included, from left to right: Olga Bogomolova, Julie Gauthier, Delali Dzirasa, moderator Nancy Woods, and Carson Chodos.

The STEM Innovations presenters included, from left to right: Olga Bogomolova, Julie Gauthier, Delali Dzirasa, moderator Nancy Woods, and Carson Chodos.

The next portion of the evening included three presentations on STEM innovations, moderated by Nancy Woods, Director of Technology and Engineering at NYC Department of Education, from:

  • Delali Dzirasa, President at Fearless Solutions;
  • Julie Gauthier and Olga Bogomolova, Co-founders, Codapillar
  • Carson Chodos, Teacher Recruiter at NYC Department of Education

Delali demoed the BOP Schools and Citizen Science platform, where hundreds of students and citizen scientists will upload data from trips to their Oyster Restoration Stations and teachers can view and contribute to a growing body of restoration curriculum.  Julie and Olga introduced the audience to their newly released project Codapillar, a foundational coding curriculum and social network for 5th-12th graders, through which “students get a taste of being able to express themselves through code.”  Carson, who is also a District 75 NYC DOE teacher, presented “Disrupting IEP [Individualized Education Program] Operationalization to Recenter Students with Disabilities.”  In it, she shared the results of an experiment at her school that’s using the Universal Design for Learning framework and digital technology to allow students with disabilities to “lead an administrative meeting about their rights” (a significant disruption of, as Carson put it, the “service provider dynamic” as traditionally, these students have the option but are not required to attend their IEP meetings, in which their participation is often passive).

The Environmental Science discussion included, from left to right: Benjamin Bostick, Ray Sombrotto, and BOP-CCERS Co-Principal Investigator Robert Newton.

The Restoration Science discussion included, from left to right: Benjamin Bostick, Ray Sombrotto, and BOP-CCERS Co-Principal Investigator Robert Newton.

The final panel was a discussion between environmental scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University including BOP-CCERS Co-Principal Investigator Robert Newton, Research Scientist; and Benjamin Bostick and Raymond N. Sambrotto, Lamont Associate Research Professors.  The panelists noted that billions of dollars have gone into reducing nitrogen flow to our waterways, an ecosystem service that was formerly provided by wetlands and shorelines (and the organisms like oysters that lived in them, absorbing a lot of those nutrients).  They remarked that one of the challenges of analyzing the waterways is that scientists need to increase the amount of sampling they do, upping both the spatial and temporal coverage, in order to produce more meaningful data.  To address this, they’re working on developing analytical methods that can engage citizen scientists to leverage a large dataset, including test kits that can measure water quality parameters using a sample’s color after adding a reagent, as analyzed via a smartphone photo.

“Smart and Connected Communities NYC,” like BOP-CCERS as a whole, spoke to the power of public engagement in environmental justice and stewardship, and how STEM education can help empower our communities to achieve these goals.  A huge thanks to BOP-CCERS Principal Investigator Lauren Birney, Co-PI Jonathan Hill, and Brian Evans at Pace University for providing us with this opportunity! This event was made possible through NSF funding through DRL 1440869.

Interested in reading more about BOP-CCERS and how we’re bringing hands-on restoration science to classrooms all over the city?  Sign up for our newsletter and click here to read all BOP-CCERS posts!