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Scientists from EPA and community provide students with unique learning experiences during EPA’s 10th Annual Science Day at Y.E. Smith Elementary School

Posted: January 14, 2014

Students filled the hallways of Y.E. Smith Elementary School on Dec. 12 excited to depart from a day of routine schoolwork to learn about science through fun, hands-on activities. Nearly 15 volunteers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – including scientists, engineers, and staff – along with representatives from the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the City of Durham, joined together for EPA’s 10th Annual Science Day at Y.E. Smith. Volunteers arrived with games, books, science experiments, and even bags full of trash, prepared to teach students in grades K-5 about topics such as saving energy, recycling and composting, water quality and conservation, and breathing clean air.

Y.E. Smith Elementary, located in Durham, N.C., consists primarily of minority students. Out of the 420 students, 95% qualify for free and reduced lunches. The school is part of the East Durham Children's Initiative (EDCI) – a non-profit organization aimed at providing students in low wealth communities with high quality education and opportunities.

"The goal of Science Day is to supplement the science that students learn in the classroom with hands-on activities using real scientists, engineers, and EPA employees as role models," said Kelly Leovic, event organizer and Director of EPA's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Outreach Program at its Research Triangle Park, N.C. facility. "We also hope to spark student's interest in science and the environment to encourage them to be good stewards of the environment and perhaps even consider an environmental or science career."

Desmond Mayes, former Acting Deputy Director of EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory, helped kick-off the days events with an activity called "Trash Talk." Students gasped as Mayes emptied a trash bag full of plastic bottles, newspapers, old toys and clothes, food wrappers, and other disposable items onto the floor. Mayes provided encouragement as students sorted the items into the categories "recycle," "repair and reuse," "compost," and "trash." The activity taught students they can help reduce the amount of trash that ends up in landfills simply by disposing of items properly.

EPA biologist Teresa Green, a returning Science Day volunteer, is no stranger to Y.E. Smith as she attended the school herself as a child.

"The look on children’s faces when I tell them I attended Y.E. Smith is priceless," Green said. "It's a wonderful feeling to be able to go back to my former elementary school and serve as a role model to inspire our future generation of leaders."

Green led an animal activity with kindergarten students that allowed them to explore different kinds of animals, their unique characteristics, how they adapt and survive in their environments, and how EPA’s mission contributes to the health and safety of animals and their environments.

"I love coming to Y.E. Smith because it reminds me of a small school that I attended," exclaimed retired EPA physical scientist Avis Hines, who has participated in Y.E. Smith Science Day for 10 years. “But we never had scientists or volunteers come do activities with us. Our presence in the school on Science Day helps the children understand concepts such as recycling, protecting the earth, and reinforces their standard curriculum on science and the environment."

EPA biologist Gary Hatch and retired EPA chemist Walter Weathers led students in an experiment called "Watts Up with Energy." Students plugged everyday appliances including a toaster, hair dryer, and a lamp into a watts meter to see how much energy different appliances use. "Students were shocked to learn how many watts something as small as a hair dryer can use," Hatch said. "We really want to show them how much of a difference they can make by doing simple things like turning off lights or televisions when they’re not being used."

EPA volunteers are already looking forward to participating in next year's Science Day at Y.E. Smith. "I think our volunteers enjoy the experience just as much as the students," Leovic said. "It's an excellent opportunity for EPA to give back to the community through educating and inspiring our future generation."

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