By Sergio Tovar
Photography by Amy Chapman Braun

Ali Boden + Cass Nieman came to the Nicholas School wanting to help others and increase engagement in the environmental field.

Cass Nieman
Cass Nieman

Getting involved in K-12 science education outreach through the Duke University Marine Lab (DUML) Community Science Program has allowed the Master of Environmental Management students to pursue their passions while helping make an impact on the community.

“Children are some of the most impressionable people,” said Nieman. “And when we teach them something that really resonates with them, they go home and tell their friends and family.”

Last summer, the second-year Coastal Environmental Management students developed and implemented a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum for Carteret County (N.C.) elementary schools. Boden and Nieman have continued similar efforts this school year through the initiative’s outreach program with the local Boys & Girls’ Club— even after Hurricane Florence hit the area.

“Participating in STEM outreach with K-12 students allows you to be that role model for so many excited-to-learn kids,” said Boden. “It’s a great feeling to help provide education to the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists.”

Elizabeth DeMattia, lead scientist for the DUML Community Science Program, said having bright and enthusiastic Duke students as mentors impacts the children.

“They’re rock stars,” said DeMattia. “Professors and faculty can go in and talk at schools, but we’re a lot older. The students have a coolness factor that we don’t necessarily have, so the connections that they make are pretty great and so powerful to watch.”

Elizabeth DeMattia
Elizabeth DeMattia

The program aims to give local students—some from underrepresented communities in STEM fields—what is likely their first hands-on exposure to ongoing marine research. It also teaches them how environmental issues such as water quality and plastic pollution affect their community.

“Our programs connect students to the science, but most importantly they connect them to the scientists— from the researchers to the graduate students to the undergraduate students,” said DeMattia. “And those connections are the most important part of our program—not just for the Carteret County students, but also the Duke students.”

Stanback Dean Toddi Steelman said investing in pipeline programs is essential to fulfilling the school’s mission of increasing diversity in the environmental field—and also to its advancement. Gaining student interest in the subject matter is also key.

“We do a better job of identifying and building knowledge about environmental problems, developing novel research tactics to confront them, and teaching about them when we bring more diverse perspectives into the school,” Steelman said.

“Our pipeline programs are aimed to help potential students see Nicholas as attainable, while de-mystifying what we can offer them. You can’t select Nicholas or an environmental career if you don’t know what it is, so demonstrating what options are available is a good first step.”

Last year, the Nicholas School named faculty member Nicolette Cagle director of K-12 diversity pipeline programs and tasked her with developing a strategic plan for future outreach, in hopes of expanding the applicant pool for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs, and ultimately faculty positions.

“The more diversity that we have among our faculty and student body, the more of an impact we can make in environmental conditions, as well as issues of environmental justice,” Cagle said.

Ali Boden
Ali Boden

After extensive research, the goal that emerged was to conduct outreach benefiting the community—increasing environmental engagement and knowledge among K-12 students, particularly those from underrepresented and underserved communities.

“We want to give the students the skills and the knowledge that they need,” said Cagle. “And if they come to the Nicholas School later down the road, even better.”

Boden has seen first-hand how exposing young children to science—and the environment—can open their eyes to new careers and new ways to make a difference.

“It’s been proven through working with these kids that showing them where they can go in life has made them feel more empowered to be able to make a change in the world,” she said. “Helping this next generation of leaders, and even the greater local community, feel motivated to make a change is one of the most rewarding things about this job.”

Building a Bridge Between Science and the Community

Renowned deep-sea biologist Cindy Van Dover and Marine Lab Director Andy Read conceived of the DUML Community Science Program and secured start-up National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the project two years ago as a means of connecting ongoing research with the surrounding Beaufort community.

The first steps involved securing funding and getting input from local stakeholders, including schools, nonprofits and museums, which then led to the creation of two educational programs in marine debris and water quality. These programs give children real-world research experience and the tools to talk with their families and friends about the impacts these issues can have on their community.

“We make environmental change with them because we talk with them, we work with them, they see what some of the students are doing,” said DeMattia, who created and runs the program. “Our students then become these amazing role models.”

As part of the marine debris program, fourth- and fifth-graders and their teachers engage in a year-long project as part of a multidisciplinary curriculum that includes field research to collect and quantify marine debris. Students also use art as a way to share what they learn with the general public.

Group photo of student participant in the Community Science Program

The water quality program provides lesson plans and related activities to give middle- and high-schoolers an inside look at such topics as the effects of stormwater runoff on sea life and how living shorelines can help reduce toxicity of marine debris in our water.

Marine Lab undergraduate students also can benefit from the Community Science Program by taking a marine conservation biology service-learning course in which they design community outreach based on the topics discussed in class.

After Hurricane Florence last fall, the course shifted focus from studying microplastics to storm science.

The class designed a project to help K-7 students learn the science behind storm surge and why living shorelines can help slow down flooding. The project included learning how to help local children express their experience through art.

“Everyone in our community is affected by changes to the local climate, including rising sea water and impacts from a lot of these storms,” said DeMattia, who also helped organize storm cleanup efforts and supply drives for area nonprofits, with help from colleagues from Duke’s main campus.

Exposing Children to Environmental Science

Working as a high school environmental science teacher for a year at an inner-city school and an economically challenged rural school changed Cagle’s approach to teaching.

“My experience was extremely powerful, and it made me realize how important context is in teaching,” said Cagle, who volunteered with AmeriCorps in Tennessee when she was right out of college. “A one- size-fits-all approach isn’t always appropriate.”

In 2012 Cagle established the Environmental Science Summer Program (ESSP), which serves rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors from underrepresented and underserved communities in Durham and surrounding areas.

The two-week summer program offers activities, ranging from taking water samples at creeks in Duke Forest to learning about sustainable food at Duke Campus Farm and visiting the Duke Lemur Center, as a way of exposing students to different facets of the environment—and possibly cultivating future leaders in the field.

ESSP also provides college and career mentoring, including resume building and practice interviews through the Nicholas School’s Career & Professional Development Center.

Cagle said that in some years 100 percent of participants leave the program with an increased interest
in environmental science and STEM fields as well as increased confidence in going to college and getting related jobs. Surveys also show an increased confidence in science.

The Nicholas School recently started Element, an elementary environmental education program, after Cagle’s research into existing STEM pipeline programs across the country found a big lapse in offerings for younger children—particularly K-6.

“More people seem to be more comfortable working with middle- and high-schoolers,” she said. “But those really young kids are being ignored.”

Element, co-created by PhD student Kimberley Drouin, allows students to serve as mentors at after- school programs for children living in underserved areas of Durham. The program engages students in environment-related activities and discusses possible careers in the field.

“It’s really fantastic,” said Cagle. “All the mentors get training in diversity and inclusion, and also get training in child development basics.”

Cagle says there are plans to launch a program through which school counselors can visit the Nicholas School to learn about environmental career options for their students. She also runs Diversity and Equity in Environmental Programs (DEEP), which bring educators, nonprofits and other community partners together
to pool their resources, explore partnerships and hold trainings to improve local outreach.

“We are stronger when we work together as a community,” said Cagle. “We can better serve our students and create a real pathway.”

Learn more about these and other Nicholas School outreach programs.

Art project by Beaufort middle schoolers
Art created by the Beaufort middle schoolers with the help of Nicholas School undergrads Barbara Weaver and Haven Parker. This project helped children express their feelings and anxiety after Hurricane Florence.