National Environmental Summit Speakers Encourage Creative Problem-solving

07/15/15 by Rebecca Rider

Students attending the 2015 National Environmental Summit for High School Students at Catawba College heard two Catawba alumni talk about the importance of using creative solutions to environmental problems. 

The summit, designed to help students explore how they can use their interests and talents to make a difference in the world, is a partnership of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) of Colorado and Environmental Working Group, headquartered in Washington, DC. 

One of the speakers, Kyle Snyder, graduated from Catawba in 1996 and went on to receive a master of science degree in mathematics from the University of Tennessee Space Institute and an MBA in aerospace from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He is currently the director of the NextGen Air Transportation Program at N.C. State University. 

Snyder spoke to students about ways they could find creative uses for existing technology. He said that when technology is invented, people rarely think of all its potential applications. For example, the iPod, while created to store and play music, has been used in operating rooms to store surgical procedures. Snyder noted that one technology that has nearly limitless possibilities is Unmanned Aircraft Systems—or small, digitally controlled airplanes and drones. Snyder specializes in unmanned aircraft and seeks to modernize North Carolina’s and the rest of the country's airspace.  

“I want to bring aviation to the people,” he said.

When most people think about unmanned aircraft, especially smaller drones, they think of national security or military operations, Snyder said. But these miracles of technology can be used for so much more. They can be used to scan crops for blight, check wildlife populations, study volcanoes and other dangerous areas, monitor traffic and deliver packages as well as in emergency response, search-and-rescue operations and archeological expeditions.

It's just another step in the advancement of flight, Snyder said, which has been happening since the first flight in 1903. Smaller, self-flying planes will limit air chatter, increase airspace capacity and save money.

“It's a natural evolution of aviation,” he said. 

None of these were necessarily in the minds of the people who worked to create unmanned aircraft, but they are practical applications that others thought of. The students can do the same, Snyder said. It's up to them, as the rising generation of environmentalists and scientists, to help interpret this technology and discover its endless creative possibilities.

Dan Couchenour, a former Environmental Steward, graduated from Catawba College in 2014 and currently teaches at Myer's Park High School in Charlotte. He spoke to the participants about leadership, practical steps to starting an initiative and finding creative solutions to problems using the tools in front of them.

When it comes to environmentalism, Couchenour said, there is no prerequisite to be a leader. You don’t have to have a degree or a salary; you just need to be passionate, creative and committed.

“Everyone is allowed to be a leader in the environmental field,” he said.

Leaders should possess three things, according to Couchenour: a desire to change or improve, an ability to work smart and think of creative solutions, and a clear vision or goal. 

While he was a student at Catawba, Couchenour successfully started a project in which he encouraged students living in dorms to save water. The savings were put toward buying bicycles that the students can rent out from Student Services. 

He encouraged the students to think about environmental problems—even small ones—in their schools and communities, and how they can use the connections and knowledge they already possess to solve them.   

“Please don't leave this place thinking that you don't have a chance of making a difference,” he said. “You do.” 

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