Damariya Carlisle, 9, jumped as an instructor hauled a crab pot onto the steel deck of the barge docked on the Elizabeth River, a Chesapeake tributary in Norfolk, Va.
“They get to see and feel real crabs,” said Janet Goldbach Ehmer of the Elizabeth River Project. “It helps to create a personal connection and investment in the river.”
The group received about $500,000 for youth resiliency education as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program. The grants are intended to teach people to better respond to threats like sea-level rise, severe storms, flooding, drought and extreme heat.
It encourages students to answer: “What can I do to make myself” — as well as my family and my community — “more resilient?” said Sarah Schoedinger, a senior program manager in NOAA’s education office.
The Elizabeth River Project welcomes as many as 200 students a day on field trips to its 120-by-32-foot learning barge. It enlists the Atlantic blue crab as a means to teach students about increased flooding and sea-level rise, nudging students toward actions they can take to reduce climate impacts. “You don’t have to grow up to do these actions,” Goldbach Ehmer tells students.
After attending with her fourth-grade class, Damariya vowed to turn off lights and computers more often.
Since 2015, NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Program has awarded nearly $10 million to 22 resiliency programs across the country. The programs provide education, and projects include building rain barrels, planting trees, hosting resiliency expos and collecting environmental data.
The approach is intended to help stave off the paralysis or anxiety that may occur when confronted with climate data that may feel overwhelming. Robin Dunbar, Elizabeth River’s deputy director of education, said their message has not been all “gloom and doom.” But, she added, “We do include real science for all ages.”
Several of the programs aim to empower students to take part in community resiliency planning. “Sometimes, when talking about big environmental issues,” she said, “there’s this idea: We need the adults to figure this out. I always come in and say, ‘Let the kids have a part in this.’ ”
Over the summer, middle-school boys in a hazard resiliency program in Gunnison, Colo., hashed out how to protect their small town at the base of the Rocky Mountains from an approaching wildfire as part of a board game. The game, developed by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, is intended to prime students to help if a real flood, drought or fire threatens their communities.
A teacher coached the boys competing against other students through several hypotheticals challenges: How do you reach people if a cell tower fails? What happens if a major road is blocked by fire? Erin Leckey, the game’s creator and a scientist, said, “When kids are empowered, that lifts up whole communities.”
Many of the programs target underserved communities. Climate change can affect young people in ways that are not immediately obvious, said Ethan Lowenstein, director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition at Eastern Michigan University. For example, if sports fields flood, students miss practices and games, which may affect their ability to get scholarships.
Grant recipients hope student enthusiasm will spur action in neighboring communities. Watershed Management Group, a nonprofit in Tucson, Ariz., engages students to design and build rain gardens, using native plants and trees and diverting stormwater runoff from school buildings to water the gardens.
On a recent morning, Riley Fletcher, 13, checked temperatures in a rain garden that stretches along a side of Drachman Montessori K-8 Magnet School in Tucson.
She admired the long strip of desert willows, grasses and flowering plants that have flourished since the garden was built in 2018. Her class continues to make improvements to and monitor the garden, which soaks up an estimated 15,000 gallons of rainwater a year.
“When I first came to the school, it was dead dirt,” said Riley, an eighth-grader. “Nature can really be beautiful and not only look that way, but it also helps the world.”