By Lisa Spengler
The wrath of snow, sleet and rain from the fourth nor’easter in March could not stop more than 100 students from schools throughout New Jersey from attending the 10th annual Clean Communities Environmental Student Exchange (CCESE) Program held at the Ocean City Music Pier.
The two-day event, sponsored by the New Jersey Clean Communities Council (NJCCC), the city of Ocean City and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, draws a diverse group of students, selected by their teachers, to participate in activities, presentations and demonstrations focused on various environmental issues affecting streets, beaches, rivers and other waterways.
“This is a collaborative effort of bringing together students from New Jersey’s 556 towns and 21 counties who are concerned about environmental issues and the impact of these issues for not only their generation, but for generations to come,” explained NJCCC Executive Director Sandy Huber. “This year, there were nine schools, each with 12 students, in attendance. Over the next two days, these students will work as teams to problem-solve issues they have identified within their communities.”
A group of 12 young women from Maria l. Varisco-Rodgers Charter School in Newark identified the numerous abandoned buildings and the homeless population in Newark as environmental issues they would present during the roundtable discussion.
“The girls are part of the school’s STEM Swag Girl’s Program, which empowers young women through education in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Patricia Fartura, an eighth grade science teacher at Maria l. Varisco-Rodgers Charter School.
“They will present their idea to clean up the area surrounding the abandoned Paramount Theater in Newark, and to rebuild the space into a shelter for the homeless. The project will also include building a greenhouse on the property,” Fartura continued.
“The students have taken studies from the Environmental Science Program into the real-world,” explained Jessica Harkness, a sixth and seventh grade science teacher from the Maria l. Varisco-Rodgers Charter School. “These students live in Newark, they go to school in Newark and are faced with homelessness and dilapidated, abandoned buildings on a daily basis. To see them passionate about making a difference in their neighborhood and city is rewarding, and being here today with other students that feel the same way is why this event makes such an impact.”
The Environmental Exchange is held in a different city each year. Participating schools have included: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Asbury Park, Pennsylvania Avenue School in Atlantic City, Gordon Parks Academy in East Orange, Tyson Elementary School in East Orange, Tyson Middle-High School in East Orange, Williamstown Middle School in Monroe, Maria l. Varisco-Rodgers Charter School in Newark, North Plainfield High School in North Plainfield, Academy for Environmental Science-Jefferson Township High School in Oak Ridge, Passaic High School in Passaic, STEM at JFK Educational Complex in Paterson, Maurice River Township Elementary School in Port Elizabeth, Princeton Public Schools in Princeton and Essex County Vocational Technical School in West Caldwell.
Devon Matthews, a senior at St. Augustine’s Prep, has been involved in the CCESE Program since eighth grade. He will be attending St. Joseph’s University in the fall to study psychology.
“I had to maintain at least a 93 percent average during the entire year and submit an essay in order to be considered for the program,” Matthews said. “My friend got me interested and now I can help other middle school students to become involved, too.”
Matthews and Maddy Foti, a junior at Williamstown High School, recently shared their skills and knowledge from the CCESE Program in Puerto Rico, where they worked with the locals in Old San Juan and talked to school students about littering and environmental issues as they pertained to their surroundings.
Tori Crowley, now a junior at Rowan University, joined students from Williamstown Middle School, where she first became involved in the Environmental Exchange.
“It’s exciting to see how this event has grown since it first began 10 years ago,” Crowley said. “Each year more and more schools send students to share their ideas and to learn how to problem-solve the issues which impact our environment.”
The students were able to observe Ocean City’s Public Works Department on Thursday repairing a portion of the beach eroded from the recent nor’easters before the morning lectures began. But the snow-covered Ninth Street beach prevented any outside demonstrations or cleanup. However, the students still had a full day of indoor activities, including a beach equipment demonstration, a treasure hunt and a jigsaw roundtable activity.
Dr. Lauren Harshaw, Educational Coordinator from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, discussed the impact of littering on marine life.
“These kids are our future,” Harshaw said. “For them to see the effects that one plastic bottle can have on a turtle or a shark really leaves an impact.”
Part of Dr. Harshaw’s demonstration included a discussion on how to “observe and respect” sea life when faced with a mammal that has washed ashore.
“A seal recently decided to sun itself on the Ocean City beach. With the use of social media, a crowd grew rather quickly, with some getting dangerously close to the seal,” Harshaw said. “It is important for people to know that you should maintain at least 150 feet between you and the mammal.”
The Environmental Exchange runs for two days and concludes Friday.
Learn more about the NJCCC at www.NJClean.org.