Earth Day Memories

Here it is – Earth Day. This is the 40th anniversary, which means that forty years ago today I was out picking up litter with my 5th grade class in front of Fairview Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia where I grew up. If my teacher had simply told us it was Earth Day, I doubt I would still remember what I was doing on April 22nd, 1970. But because we learned this date with our hands, it stuck.

Two years later I would be part of the inaugural class 7th grade class at James W. Robinson, Jr. Secondary School. My science teacher, Marylou Simon, used us as the guinea pigs for the ecology curriculum she was developing for the Fairfax County Schools. We had terrariums and fish tanks, learned about food webs, and took overnight expeditions into the wilds of Prince William County where I saw my first beaver.

Years later, when I was invited back to speak at the school’s 25th anniversary, I learned from another teacher that in August, 1971, as the teachers were setting up their new school, Mr. Samuel J. Coffee, our very progressive and popular principal, called the science teachers together and declared “I want you to teach ecology as part of your curriculum.”

The young teachers dutifully agreed, but as soon as they got back to the teacher’s lounge they looked at each other and asked “What’s ecology?” Clearly, times have changed.

Yesterday and today I was lucky enough to attend the Chicago Summit on the National Academy of Engineering’s ‘Grand Challenges’, and to host a panel discussion on water. The Academy has identified fourteen challenges it thinks we as a society, and engineering in particular, needs to tackle in the coming century. Among these are clean water and urban infrastructure, two issues that are near and dear to my heart.

Dr. Charles Vest, President of NAE, spoke to the group last night and pointed out that we need to increase the number of engineers graduating from our universities in order to creatively tackle these challenges. In conversations here at Wingspread and at last month’s Cities of the Future conference, we’ve discussed the need for a new mindset in engineering – one which thinks about sustainability and resiliency in our urban systems, and in how we handle water. And so, it seems, Earth Day’s tentacles are winding their way into the schools of engineering, and the halls of the National Academies. This is a good thing.

Meanwhile, Earth Day continues to be wrapped tightly into the fabric of my own soul. I’m fortunate enough to earn a living working on behalf of our environment. Ironically enough, I now live in the state where Earth Day was born, and sit on the Board of Visitors of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (as in Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And many days of the week, I can be found picking up litter along my running route. It’s a habit I acquired about 40 years ago.

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