When Claudia Bonilla enrolled in biology class, she knew very little about plant ecology, and had no idea that it would soon become a significant part of her life.
Claudia’s class was part of the EnvironMentors Project, based in Washington, DC. Each student in the class was assigned a mentor to provide guidance on an individual science project. Soon Claudia, a ninth-grader at Bell Multicultural Senior High School, was designing an experiment looking at the effects of water pollution on plants, and learning how to ask questions, gather data, think critically, and draw conclusions based on her observations.
The key to EnvironMentors’ success, according to program director Susan Carlson, is the bond between mentors and students. "Many students would never undertake a project if it weren’t for the friendship they develop with their mentors," says Carlson. Administered by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, EnvironMentors connects scientists in the nation’s capital with high school students who are interested in environmental science. In its 13-year history, more than 800 students have participated in the program. Most go on to achieve academic success: 95 percent of participants go on to college (out of a district-wide average of about 45 percent), the majority pursuing degrees in science or engineering.
Mentors are usually staff scientists at government agencies, nonprofit groups, and private companies who share their time, meeting with their students one-on-one several times during the school year. With their mentors’ support, students design and implement an experiment and write research papers, culminating in a science fair competition. The students also participate in a "teach-in," going into elementary school classrooms to share what they have learned with their young counterparts. There is a strong emphasis on college and career exposure; students accompany mentors into their workplace for a firsthand look at a career in science, in addition to participating in college-preparatory workshops.
Claudia based her project on her interest in plants. Watering her plants at home, she wondered, "What would happen if plants were given different types of water, including polluted water?" With guidance from Kirsten Cappel, a staff scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, Claudia designed an experiment to determine the effect of water from the polluted Anacostia River on plant growth, compared with the effects of tap and bottled water.
Over a four-week period, Claudia watered different specimens with water from the different sources, and measured their height every three days. "I learned that polluted water is bad for plants," she said, "and that tap water is no different than bottled water." Other EnvironMentors students shared similar insights. "I learned that science is trial and error — that you need to go beneath the surface to find a conclusion," says James Soller, a freshman at School Without Walls Senior High School.
These are precisely the goals that Laura Currier, Claudia’s biology teacher at Bell Multicultural, had when she decided to involve her students in the program, "I wanted them to be able to apply science to the real world, because a lot of times it seems like science is so far from their realities." More important, students gain a positive role model and friend in their mentor, something many urban youth lack. "[Almost] all students gain an increased sense of self- esteem and confidence, having worked closely with a mentor to develop what for most is a difficult project," adds Carlson.
The EnvironMentors program has been a driving force in increasing the participation of underrepresented ethnic groups in the sciences — over 90 percent of participating students are African-American. The participation of students from Bell Multicultural School, where 60 percent of students are of Hispanic descent, is an opportunity to embrace this community as well. Though it involves a commitment of additional time and effort, Currier hopes to continue participating in the program because the benefits for the students far outweigh the extra work. "They wrote incredible lab reports, designed great display boards, interviewed experts, and practiced presentation skills," says Currier. "These accomplishments, along with four students winning some scholarship money, make the extra time and work well worth the effort."
At the EnvironMentors awards ceremony on 11 May 2005, Claudia won a special prize for excellence in aquatic research, which includes a $500 scholarship award. Participating in this program has sparked her interest in a science-related career, and for the first time, Claudia considers a college degree to be an option. Her fellow students feel the same way. Doing research and interacting with such a dedicated group of mentors has opened their eyes to the world of environmental science, and to careers and opportunities they never knew existed.
Abraham Parker (e-mail: ) is AIBS’s education and outreach program associate.