Models of change: Climate Change Carnival gives Amherst middle schoolers hands-on workshops on a changing planet

  • Above: Brach Applegate and Elannah Brennan build roads and culverts on a “stream table,” which teaches about river evolution and erosion.

  • Willa Warick builds a solar oven during the Climate Change Carnival at Amherst Regional Middle school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amherst Regional Middle School students build roads and culverts on a “stream table,” which teaches about river evolution and erosion during the Climate Change Carnival held at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Willa Warick gets ready to cook her s'more in a solar oven she built during the Climate Change Carnival at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Right: Christine Hatch, UMass extension associate professor in geosciences, talks about the “stream table” during the Climate Change Carnival at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2021 4:44:56 PM

Bigger and more intense storms as the result of climate change, and erosion and flooding caused by the power of water, may not always be easy for people to visualize.

Using a device known as Stream Table 101, eighth graders at Amherst Regional Middle School recently manipulated by hand a ground recycled plastic material to form rivers and streams and then quickly see how more significant weather events, with a warming planet, can alter the natural landscape and take out bridges and homes.

“This is a good thing to learn about,” said Elannah Brennan, 14, of Amherst, after working with other students to form the riverbeds as the water was unleashed. “These models show how rivers change, and we’re doing different scenarios of how man-made things affect it.”

Ruby Austin, also 14 and of Amherst, said climate change hastens the water’s impact.

“There’s a lot more destruction,” Austin said. “Big storms and climate change are causing rivers to rise and rivers to run into roads.”

For Christine Hatch, UMass extension associate professor in geosciences, the scale model is one that engineers and others who design roads and bridges use so they can see long-term impacts, with two minutes on the Stream Table reflecting what might happen over a 10-year time span.

The activity was part of a recent daylong Climate Change Carnival, supported with a $4,500 grant from the Amherst Education Foundation, with hands-on workshops for seventh and eighth graders featuring projects such as bees and pollinators and engineering of solar cars.

“This whole day we’re dedicating to learning about climate change,” said Irene LaRoche, a social studies teacher and one of the leaders in coordinating the event.

“There is no solution that is insignificant,” LaRoche said. “All students see that they have a part to play.”

She was joined by Kerrita Mayfield, a science teacher who spearheaded the event by seeking the grant, and math teacher Tiffany Thibodeau. They all participated in the Shelburne Farm Climate Resiliency Fellowship, and also had assistance from Rich Ferro, another science teacher.

LaRoche explained that the idea was to offer an interdisciplinary approach, from gathering data using math and science, learning about activism and policy through civics and social studies and creating posters as part of art class.

Workshops were set up around the campus and were designed to be hands on as much as possible, though students learning remotely could also participate.

At one of the stations Andrew Laurion, who also spoke via YouTube to all students, discussed guerrilla gardening and placing seed bombs.

Laurion, who works at Gardening the Community in Springfield and for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said local microbe traps improve soil, a project that students can do at their own homes. He also talked about bioremediation and finding natural ways to remediate soil without cap-and-fill methods, such as through fungi, bacteria, plants and biochar.

Others who spoke included Amherst’s Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello, about civic engagement, and former state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, outlining the five pillars for net negative carbon emissions.

Solar ovens were created in one workshop, where Mayfield showed how tinfoil and black paper inside a pizza box can harness the power of sunlight.

Mayfield said this can be an important technique in places that may lack electricity.

There, Zeriah Vennell, 14, was making s’mores inside, though he said he wouldn’t necessarily be eating them once the chocolate and marshmallow had melted onto the graham cracker.

“I love doing science experiences like this,” said Willa Warwick, 14, of Shutesbury, adding that she may do more with the oven at home.

The day kicked off with a Zoom call in which LaRoche interviewed Michael Mann, a Penn State climatologist and geophysicist known for the hockey stick graph that shows the dramatic warming of Earth that has taken place over the past century.

Mann, who grew up in Amherst and attended the same school when it was known as the Amherst-Pelham Regional Junior High, talked about the hostility some have toward his research and encouraged students that they could make a difference by choosing biking over driving and changing their diets to eating less meat. It is critical for them to let adults know how climate change threatens their futures.

“The most important thing you can do is use your voice and demand action,” Mann said.

Middle School Principal Diego Sharon said combating climate change is a value shared at the school and that students were learning about it in an appropriate way.

“I’m proud of the teachers who have put together a clear introduction to this topic,” Sharon said.

LaRoche said her hope is the program can become an annual or semi-annual event so middle school students can understand that climate change is an issue not going away.

“We want this to be ongoing and sustaining,” LaRoche said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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