Story by Brandon Gertz, MEM ’21, Nicholas School Communications Student Assistant

Photos by S.P. Murray


Imagine a student in an environmental science program. The past few months have been filled with hard work: conducting research, forming hypotheses, and running tests with multiple trials. Now, with the work completed, the student presents what she’s learned. As the audience applauds, the student feels a deep sense of accomplishment and pride. “This is it,” she says to herself. “I’m going to be a scientist.”

How old was the student in your imagination?

You may have pictured her finishing a Ph.D., or maybe turning in an important project as the capstone of her undergraduate education.

But did you consider that she might be in elementary school?

Though it may seem improbable, recent research has revealed that the best time to get kids excited about science is between kindergarten and fifth grade. After that, many students have already decided whether science and the environment are “for them.” Too often, especially among underrepresented groups in environmental science and policy such as girls and racial minorities, the answer is “no.” Once that decision is made, even high school-level science outreach might not make a difference. As environmental educators, we have missed this chance to make a connection.

When I arrived at Duke University to start my graduate degree in environmental management in the fall of 2019, I received an email looking for student volunteers to act as mentors in an after-school environmental science program at Durham elementary schools. The program was called ELEMENT – short for ELementary Environmental MENToring.

I signed up, thinking that it would be a good way to give back to my community. I didn’t realize at the time that I would soon be drawn into a world of activists on the cutting edge of improving how and where we help make connections between people and the environment.