All Marjan Perry wants is to make Liberty Elementary School a little bit greener.
Sustainable Saturday, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique, O’D’s Tavern and Strawtown Studio.
The high-energy third-grade teacher, and no-nonsense Bronx native, has taught at the Valley Cottage K-5 school for 23 of her 26 years in the Nyack School District. But how did she get to environmental advocacy from the crowds and concrete of city life?
It started with her mom’s decision to send her out of the Bronx to a Quaker high school in Manhattan — Friends Seminary. “They didn’t have much of a gym, so we took classes and programs instead,” she says. “I chose the wilderness outdoor program, and those three years changed my life.” She took her first environmental courses at Williams College in Massachusetts. “I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Thoreau and Emerson . . . But it didn’t come around again until decades later, when it bubbled up in my life, like the current that comes back as a river.”
Once that river was running, so was Ms. Perry. She staged a five-year campaign to get recycling bins into Liberty. When she had accomplished that, the school administration approached her about an annual science fair.
As Marjan Perry is no ordinary teacher, this would be no ordinary science fair. Along with the student projects and experiments, she got parent scientists, community businesses and environmental organizations to get involved. The aim is twofold: to encourage conservation at home today and careers in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the future.
Now in its fourth year, the science fair (run by Ms. Perry and fellow teachers Linda Gabriele and George Mrsich) took over the auditorium at Liberty on Tuesday, June 7. The elementary school students proudly displayed their own work, while getting an education from the community tables set up around the room.
Mommy and Daddy are scientists
Gary Cirlin, airplane-obsessed (“yes, that’s what my wife would say”) student pilot and parent of a first grade girl, started his presentation with a picture and story of the Wright Brothers’ airplane, and then demonstrated flight-tracking software, and how a jet engine works.
Behind the table with the beautiful and mysterious rocks was Nicole Davi, professor at William Paterson University and scientist at the Tree-Ring Laboratory at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where she has the not-your-everyday-job of “interpreting high-resolution tree-ring records, in order to further our understanding of past natural and recent anthropogenic climate change over the past 2000 years,” according to her bio. She’s the parent of a first and fourth grader at Liberty who, she says, “still think it’s cool when mom comes to school to talk science.” Rock stars of the day? “Fool’s Gold (pyrite), the quartz crystals, the volcanic rocks and the fossils.” Davi said. “I also wore a ton of jewelry so kids could see that it is all just rocks.”
Community Education at the Science Fair
Tarrytown’s Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. sent a contingent of scientists — all working on critical problems like antibiotic resistance — to give students that “scientist-for-a-minute” experience (complete with lab coat) by transforming a few ingredients into a fascinating blob of not-liquid-not-solid polymer. The white coats and the wiggly goo were only half the equation: just looking at these researchers — all quite young, and five of the seven female — a kid could think “I can do this too!”
The only fire-breathing exhibit belonged to Mad Science of the Mid-Hudson, which will be part of the Orangetown Summer Recreation program this year. Mekha Mathew, third-year nursing student at Dominican, drew gasps and screams by making a slip of nitrocellulose burst into flames, leaving not a trace behind.
Local utilities were on hand, preaching conservation. Orange & Rockland had a coloring book, and a “Vampire Power” handout to reinforce what eco-geeks already know: cable TV boxes hemorrhage electricity even when not in use. An educational team from Suez, Rockland’s dominant water utility, inspired respect for the precious resource by showing how little — only 1%, “just one drop” — of the earth’s water is fresh and potable.
A pair of female engineers from the New York Power Authority [NYPA] brought a fun solar power demonstration, and a clear sub-agenda. “I knew I wanted to be an engineer when I was 11 years old, when I got to shadow a female engineer for a day,” said mechanical engineer Christina Iwaniw.
Besides boosting solar power, chemical engineer Kaela Mainsah said that they were also at the Liberty fair “to encourage STEM careers for girls.”
A roomful of slime
The students’ own displays showed a strong preference for slimy substances, including “bouncy polymer chemistry,” like fifth-grader Adriana Gleeson’s. “That’s silly putty to you” she said.
Future scientist Shyju Varughese, also a fifth grader, broke the mold with a magnetic hoverboard project. “I love science; it’s been my favorite subject forever,” he said.
STEMScopes: the new science
Along with the focus on conservation, the Nyack School District’s new STEMScopes science curriculum was the backbone of this year’s fair, according to Ms. Perry, with all the students’ projects and displays drawn from these lessons.
Overseeing STEMScopes’ “implementation year” is Nyack Middle School physical science teacher Ben Turner, head of the K-12 Science Curriculum Committee. In between guiding his students with their final projects, he was happy to talk about the new program from his seventh-grade lab classroom:
STEMScopes uses project-based learning and an assessment style that’s less traditional: state a claim, provide evidence, and give a reason for your claim, using that evidence as support. That’s where the new English Language Arts and Social Studies standards, and most certainly the next-gen sciences are going, and STEMScopes does all that very eloquently. It also approaches many of the life-science topics from a concept of conservation and sustainability.
What’s next at eco-Liberty Elementary?
Before this science fair was over, the next one was already on Marjan Perry’s mind. Two conservation participants, Rockland Recycles and the Rockland Farm Alliance, had a conflict with the date this year.
Next year’s date is already set — Friday, April 21, the day before Earth Day — so that these organizations can nail it down. “We need to increase the citizen responsibility aspect — the ‘what you can do when you leave this place’ part of it,” she says.
But there’s cause for rejoicing right on the horizon: starting this year, solar panels are being installed on school district buildings.
Ms. Perry’s next green target? A rain barrel for the Liberty school garden. “We shouldn’t be wasting water with a hose, but should be collecting the rain water.” She’s applied for a New York State grant for that because, in the end, it all comes down to money.
“It costs $500 for a bus to take kids to the Hudson River, or to the free education program at the Hillburn recycling center, so I just had to stop taking them,” she says.
The challenges, however, don’t weigh Marjan Perry down. “I’m very optimistic. I think we’re at the turning point. We are there,” she says. “To save this planet is the new science. Because the old way of looking at the world and science is what got us into the problems we’re in right now. So, my agenda is to change 500 kids’ minds a little bit. That’s what I want out of this.”
- Mad Science of the Mid Hudson
- Orange & Rockland: Energy Efficiency
- Suez New York: Water Saving Tips
- New York Power Authority [NYPA]: Sustainability
- Regeneron Pharmeceuticals, Inc.