Educating Our Planet’s Future

This year’s Climate and Society class is out terminational the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Jenna Famular, C+S ’15

Bronx Zoo Asia Gate Entrance Credit: Jenna Famular

Bronx Zoo Asia Gate Entrance Credit: Jenna Famular

Throughout my academic career, professors have pointed the proverbial finger at my fellow classmates and me saying, “it’s up to you to fix this mess.” We are the bright young minds of tomorrow who will create solar panels half the size with three times the efficiency, harness the power of the waves, find better ways to manage our trash and waste, change the conversation on climate change and, ultimately, save the planet. Some of us are working diligently towards these goals. Like-minded groups of students sit in lecture halls or recitations and nod along to professors providing answers to the question of how we accomplish such a large feat. While the development of new technologies is assisting with the formulation of plausible solutions and new ideologues take office, how can an autonomous individual, like me, make a large enough impact on a problem so vast?

Columbia University’s Climate and Society program charges students with the responsibility to change the way society views the concept of climate change. A fundamental shift in the discussion of climate change must occur in order for effective action to be taken. Discussions about climate change need to be open and engaging; a meaningful give and take of information and ideas that allows for real progress. Some are afraid to confront climate change head on, and others are simply unable to determine how climate change will, and already does, impact their lives. We discuss how to effectively communicate with public officials, smallholder farmers in foreign nations and fellow scientists. However, we rarely discuss how to communicate with the planet’s next generation.

This summer I worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo Education Department as a teaching fellow educating high school students on topics ranging from wildlife careers to genetically modified organisms. I assisted with zookeeper duties and helped teach teens how to care for a variety of animals. I also engaged in several citizen science programs including a camera trap study and an American eel population survey in the Bronx River. My independent contribution to the teen program included a curriculum pertaining to climate change. This gave me the opportunity to engage adolescents in relevant and meaningful discussions about human impact on our planet. I challenged the students to question the ways we exploit natural resources and influence the biology and behavior of wildlife populations. Essentially, my goal was to have the students construct ideas for the sustainable management of our planet. Disney’s animated film, WALL-E served as an excellent conversation starter.

Educating teenagers was an eye-opening experience. Opening a discussion on climate change yields interesting observations, dynamic questions and an optimism that only comes from working with adolescents. They seem to ask the same questions that adults ask themselves, but without the weight of pragmatic life experience that constrains adult inquiry. These young minds eagerly grasp the concept of our changing planet quickly. To them, climate change is real, it’s happening and it’s our job to fix it.

Today’s high school students are far more educated about climate change than I expected. Students are provided with the basic science behind climate change at a young enough age that climate change is essentially scientific doctrine much like gravitational theory is for adults. As a result students are attuned to the realization that we are as much a component part of Earth’s ecosystem as any other species. Humans, as the world’s most influential ecosystem engineers may construct awe-inspiring cityscapes, but our actions can have massively negative implications for Earth’s equilibrium.


Polar bear napping in his exhibit at the Bronx Zoo Credit: Jenna Famular

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my time at Columbia University it’s that our future is a precarious thing. We are taught about projected alterations in the future climate, how circulation patterns in the air and oceans might shift and how human societies are attempting to cope with the changing planet. The consequences of human fossil fuel dependency have largely influenced my adult life, but I’ve yet to determine what my role in the future of our planet is. I’m not an engineer that can design new alternative energy sources. I’m not a politician that will draft environmentally-friendly laws and regulations. I also lack the professional scientific experience to be a climatologist. Every individual can have an impact on our planet if we can only determine our role. This summer was a time for me to explore the answer to the question of what role I can play.

WCS is an organization that has a large impact on the planet and fulfills several roles. They have researchers at locations all over the world documenting species and the problems facing them. They research the connections between wildlife and infectious disease, including the most recent Ebola outbreak. They own and operate four zoos and an aquarium in New York that all educate the public about threats to the planet and provide a unique space for children to explore the natural world. They work with NGOs and international governing bodies to enact political reforms including the ban on ivory sales in the United States by way of the 96Elephants campaign. WCS has a foot in so many doors, which makes working at the organization an exciting and amazing opportunity.

After my time at WCS, I’ve come to understand my professional role more deeply. I am an educator. I help can save the planet by shaping a new generation of leaders that will reach mature understandings about ecosystems and the connection between human’s activity and the cycles of our planet. By discussing and modeling manageable pro-wildlife and pro-ecosystem behavioral changes and ideologies I can help steer the fate of Earth to a brighter future.

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