This is a dispatch from Theodore Endreny’s sabbatical in Italy….
Greece laid the foundation for modern education with the Socratic method (i.e., engaging in critical thinking to eliminate faulty hypothesis), the Academy (i.e., Plato created a free institution for students to collectively engage with instructors in higher learning), and the Lyceum (i.e., one interpretation, linked to active learning is Aristotle established a learning environment to get students out of their seats, also called the Peripatetic school). This year Greece constructed a high priority educational initiative on this foundation, to find sustainable ways to reduce urban pollution. This initiative is dedicated to training teachers, and by extension the students. As part of the Fulbright Inter-country Lecture exchange between Greece and Italy, I had the chance to participate in this initiative as a representative of the i-Tree and Parthenope urban metabolism research teams. It was my assignment to share important advances in urban environmental management with the school district of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece.
Researchers want to share their results, so investing in teacher training is extremely rewarding due to each teacher disseminating the information each year to an eager and high energy group of students. Some of those students then take the information into their subsequent learning and careers, influencing others. To achieve this dissemination, I worked with Vasiliki Kioupi of the Directorate for Secondary Education of Piraeus, in the Greek Department of Environmental Education, and Dr. Anna Endreny, Chair of the Jamesville Dewitt Middle School Science Department and an expert in teacher training, active learning, and science education curricular development. Our focus was to create a workshop and lesson plan that addressed a problem important to the teachers and their students, so that it would be used in the classroom, and generate learning outcomes that could guide future coursework and careers.
The problem identified by the Pireaus teachers was urban pollution and the impact to coastal areas, making waters unfit for fishing and swimming, and lands unfit for growing crops. Our workshop team knew that solutions to this problem should consider local constraints, including the prolonged economic debt crisis in Greece. The teachers wanted their investment in a solution to yield benefits to human well being, available to all, particularly the increasing number of poor refugees arriving in the Pireaus port. The teachers and students wanted a solution that they could implement, as individuals and small communities, to empower everyone to contribute to a healthier urban environment. To better understand the local problems faced by the school district, and begin our dialogue on solutions, we toured the land and water resources with the local teachers.
The solution we introduced involved planting and managing urban trees to deliver pollution removal and other ecosystem services. Our research team focuses on how the urban forest and each of its trees is fueled by solar, i.e., renewable, energy to provide low-cost, interconnected functions that holistically make urban areas richer in environmental, social, and economic services. Urban trees can be planted and managed by individuals, and they will significantly improve human well being and biodiversity. For water and soil quality problems, our research team promotes use of tree based filters, which have physical, biological, and chemical properties to treat many pollutants.
We entitled the workshop, “Advances in urban environmental management”, and at each workshop I was asked to deliver a research lecture on how to improve urban water resources using green infrastructure design. We offered the workshop in two locations, and during each the workshops the teachers would role play the part of a student, engaging in our lesson plans. The first workshop was held at the Public Middle School of Galatas. The second workshop was held at 3rd Public Middle School of the city of Nikaia. Each workshop provided 4 hours of professional development credits for the attending teachers, which is 10% of the total they need to earn each year. The teachers attending the workshop were responsible for courses in biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, environmental education, and student based research projects. We had 16 teachers and 3 community members attend the workshop in Galatas, and 30 teachers attend the workshop in Nikaia. Each teacher teaches on average 100 to 200 students each year, so by training 1 teacher, our message was efficiently disseminated to a much larger audience.
The lesson plans were structured to connect the problem to the solution, using cause and effect and deductive reasoning principles. The workshop started with a lecture illustrating how urban pollutants (e.g., nutrients, metals, oils, organic compounds, sediment, etc) travel from yards, sidewalks, parking lots, roads, leaky sanitary pipes, across the landscape or through the soil to receiving waters. This travel is referred to as non-point source runoff. To treat the pollutant during the non-point source runoff process requires mapping its travel, or flow, path across the landscape, and then placing a tree based filter in its path. To better understand the water and soil contamination problem, the students should identify the pollutants (i.e., is it nitrogen or lead?). While schools typically do not have the expensive gas chromatography and mass spectrometry equipment to auto-analyze samples, they can visually characterize samples with microscopes.
Our first lesson plan connected the complex pollution chemistry of a water sample with a simple, naturally occurring indicator, the diatom. The diatom can be viewed by a microscope. It is a unicellular aquatic plant with > 100,000 species (>200 genera), with varying sensitivity to pollution. In the lesson plan the students used the free, online, SimRiver to: a) virtually collect water samples; b) characterize the diatoms in that sample with microscopes; c) categorize the percent of diatoms that were tolerant or sensitive to pollution; d) conclude if the water sample was polluted or clean based on the diatom categories; and e) categorize the landscape flow path for each water sample; and f) associate clean and polluted water with different landscapes, which were forest, agricultural, and residential, with and without factories. A learning outcome that we emphasized was the association of clean water with landscapes that had more trees.
The second lesson plan had students analyze their landscapes for tree cover, and make inferences about water quality. The students used the free, online, i-Tree Canopy tool to view aerial photographs for an area of interest, and characterize the landscape cover (e.g., tree, house, road) using samples from random points in that area. The scientific method uses random point sampling to improve and qualify the accuracy of our predictions. We structured the lesson plan to create areas of interest and examine the landscapes around the Greek schools. Once the students determined the percent tree cover for their landscape, they could make inferences about whether the trees were providing a water quality benefit. These inferences are improved by making a site investigation (think active learning, with Aristotle’s Peripatetic school) to examine the likely flow paths for the non-point source runoff, and determine where trees are most needed to intercept and filter the pollutants. The i-Tree Canopy tool also provided a list of other tree benefits, including reductions to air pollutants (e.g., CO, NO2, SO2, PM 2.5) and carbon sequestration, which will help reduce the magnitude of climate change. The discussion of benefits introduced the teachers to the concepts of river basins, and how the landscape cover classification would be used by our i-Tree Hydro model to more accurately predict the water quality impacts of tree cover.
The teachers provided helpful feedback on our “Advances in urban environmental management” workshops. They were generous with their positive comments and gratitude for offering this training; the teachers in Galatas were particularly grateful for us traveling 2.5 hours from Athens to arrive at their relatively remote school, given how expensive it is for them to all travel to Athens for a workshop. The teachers asked for follow-on workshops that continued using hands-on learning, so their students can actively engage in sampling, characterizing, and remedying pollution problems. They also asked that the future workshops continue to use an interdisciplinary approach to problem characterization and solutions. This is motivated by the Greek students taking at least 3 science courses simultaneously, each year, from the offerings of biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and research methods. This interdisciplinary framework is shown to provide the holistic perspective needed for solving complex problems, and is evidence that Greece continues to lead the way in education.
Acknowledgement: The travel for this project was supported in part by the Greek Fulbright Commission and a USDA Forest Service i-Tree award. Logistical support was provided by Artemis Zenetou, Executive Director of the Fulbright Foundation in Greece, Nicholas Tourides, Educational Advisor of the Fulbright Foundation in Greece, and Paola Sartorio, Executive Director of the Fulbright Foundation in Italy. Programming support was provided by Vasiliki Kioupi, Environmental Education Coordinator, Directorate for Secondary Education of Piraeus, Greek Department of Environmental Education. The preparation leading to the workshop was supported by the U.S. – Italy Fulbright Commission and Parthenope University through a Fulbright Scholar grant to Theodore Endreny to serve as Distinguished Chair in Environmental Science at Parthenope University in Naples, Italy, and by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry through a sabbatical leave to Theodore Endreny.