Before You Go - January 2015
Find a printable version here

before you go…

Academy Teaches Students About Climate Change

By Deborah L. Vence

High school students from Ohio had the opportunity to study climate change for 12 days in Alaska during the summer, thanks to a special partnership program called the "Climate Change Academy."

The Academy—which is a partnership between the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program and the nonprofit No Barriers Youth—began with a Night Skies program, which led to the creation of the more intensive immersion program.

No Barriers Youth, a program of No Barriers USA, a nonprofit organization based in Fort Collins, Colo., had asked for applications for the "Climate Change Academy" from middle schools and high schools across the nation. Mike Sustin, chemistry and environmental science teacher from West Geauga High School, was selected as a group leader with 10 students being selected to participate in the academy.

"The idea for the Climate Change Academy was born out of our organization's partnership with the Climate Change Response Program (CCRP) of the National Park Service," said Julia Breul, No Barriers Youth Program assistant. "The CCRP is really good at reaching an adult audience, but felt they needed to reach a younger audience and do it in a way that was inspiring, place-based, experiential and hopeful."

She added that No Barriers Youth has a long history of successfully facilitating these types of programs in NPS units and internationally.

"We set out to create an experiential, educational program in an NPS unit focused on enabling students to witness some of the most tangible effects of climate change firsthand and to learn about the causes and solutions of this massive, intergenerational issue," Breul said.

She explained that "the overall goal of the academy was to inspire the participants to discover their individual potential and sense of efficacy to create meaningful change in the world, especially in the face of this seemingly insurmountable issue.

"Our aim was to do this via interdisciplinary experiential activities centered around climate change, leadership development, service to others and challenge/stretching comfort zones. Ultimately, we hoped to create 'Climate Change Ambassadors'—passionate about the natural world, unified by a common cause and inspired to impact change," she added.

During their trip, the students hiked and watched wildlife and learned about the changing climate.

"I am glad that I came to Alaska and learned about the harmful effects of climate change for myself," said Sydney Young, a sophomore at West Geauga High School in Chesterland, Ohio, in a November press release. "I have the knowledge to define my own opinion. I feel comfortable and confident in my ability to make a change."

To prepare for the expedition, Young and other participating students, ages 14 to 18, spent time in Kenai Fjords and Denali National Parks following a pre-trip curriculum. The students devoted their time over the weekends and summer days to complete five sessions of extra-curricular lessons in preparation for the trip.

"The five sessions to prepare the students for the Climate Change Academy served as a classroom-based primer in climate change and climate science in general. These sessions covered topics such as greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect, adaptation, mitigation, climate justice and sustainability," Breul said. "The goal was for students to come to Alaska with a working knowledge of the subject matter so that their time in the field could be as experiential as possible."

Students hiked the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park with park rangers Luke Rosier and Jenna Giddens. The students were sworn in as junior rangers and took a full-day wildlife and glacier boat tour of the fjords with John Morris, interpretive program manager for the National Park Service's Alaska Region.

Moreover, in Denali National Park, students participated in a climate change scenario planning activity with Alaska Region Science Advisor Bob Winfree. On their last day in the park the students overcame personal challenges by hiking a strenuous Cathedral Mountain route with Dave Schirokauer, physical and social science program manager in Denali.

After their return back to Ohio, the students began developing a project to share their discoveries with their community. In addition, each student will enter the first No Barriers Youth Climate Change Art Contest, also sponsored by the NPS Climate Change Response Program, in which anyone ages 12 to 21 can submit an artistic entry responding to: "When thinking about climate change, what is your hope for the future?" The goal of the contest is to inspire conversation around the subject and to encourage youth to approach it from multiple disciplines and value the intersection of arts and sciences.

"Overall, what I believe the students took away from the Climate Change Academy is a sense of connection to the natural world, and specifically Alaska, as well as a sense of hope for the future of our planet and their ability to be the ones to make the changes they want to see," Breul said.