National Environmental Summit Students Approach Environment through Other Fields of Interest

07/31/11 by Kathy Chaffin

Student Nylah Oliver talks about what she learned in the focus group, “Environmental Improvisation.”

SALISBURY, N.C. – Kenneth Dunn of Durham didn't realize the extent of the world's environmental problems before participating in the "Redesigning Our Future" National Environmental Summit for High School Students.  Sponsored by the Center for the Environment at Catawba College in partnership with Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, it was held July 20-24 on the Catawba campus.

"For instance, I didn't know there were pharmaceuticals in the water," he said. "I had no idea that people were dumping them down the drain, so that was a big problem to me.

"I also didn't know that in barns, they feed their livestock antibiotics that wash down in the water also."

It was in the "Fish, Pharms and Flushing" focus group that Dunn learned that over the past 10 years, studies of lakes and waters have revealed the unexpected presence of a variety of pharmaceutical compounds. Today, pharmaceutical pollution is a key concern among environmental toxicologists.

Led by Dr. Sue Calcagni, environmental science professor at Catawba, the focus group examined how pharmaceuticals get in the water, whether the levels detected are harmful to people or wildlife, what harm different pharmaceuticals can cause and what people can do to keep them out.

Dunn, a rising senior at Northern High School in Durham, said it was a very interesting focus group because he learned about ways people hurt the environment without even knowing it. "Everything we do in life from what I learned in that focus group has a consequence to it," he said.

Another benefit of the focus groups, Dunn said, which met twice a day for the middle three days of the summit, was having enough time to really get to know the other students. "That was really special to me," he said.

Taylor Pitts of Nashville, N.C., chose the “Environmental Education through Theatre” focus group led by David Pulliam. Pitts, a rising senior at Nash Central High, said the group followed the forum theater concept, through which they acted out a certain scene and then allowed another group member – or  during live performances on Saturday evening, an audience member – to freeze the scene and perform it in a completely different, more environmentally-friendly way.

Pitts, who wants to study the environmental field in college, said she thought the summit would give her a foot in the door. "You see a lot of different personalities and different people when you come to something like this," she said.

Dr. Seth Holtzman, philosophy and religion professor, led the "Go Ahead: Change Your Mind" focus group. Based on the premise that to change the world, "we must also consider changing how we think about the world," he led students in discussing how the modern Western worldview does not support the environmental movement and ecological perspective and what individuals can do to change this.

During one of the sessions, students in the group shared moments in their lives when they changed their thinking about a particular subject and what prompted it.

Dr. Forrest Anderson, creating writing professor, led "A Field Guide to the Politics and Poetics of Environmental Writing" focus group, engaging students in various group storytelling and individual writing exercises. Goals for the class were: "Learn how to have a voice. Translate the environment with writing. Inform people about environment. Make a change."

Based on the premise that "the pen is mightier than the sword," students in Dr. Bethany Sinnott's focus group, "You're (Your) Right to Write," wrote letters responding to experiences in the Catawba Ecological Preserve. This helped students develop skills for writing letters to the editor, speeches to grassroots environmental groups and petitions to legislators.

Other focus groups included: "Animals: Near and Far" led by Dr. Joe Poston, biology/ecology professor; "An American Heritage of Sustainability" led by Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor; "Global Warming: The Debate" led by Dr. Jim Beard, chemistry/research professor; and "Environmental Improvisation" led by Missy Barnes, who teaches theater.

All of the focus groups had a chance to share what they had learned at an extravaganza show/open mic/performance on Friday evening.

From left, Amanda Shuford, Laura Simpson, Shelby Anderson and
Alex Bohannon teach environmental education through theater.

Students in the forum theater focus group gave three performances, allowing people from the audience to freeze a scene and redo it in a more environmentally friendly way. Some groups had displays of posters showing what they had learned and were available to answer questions.

Others used the open mic forum to explain what they studied and their conclusions, and one group even sang along to their recording of an original song on recycling and taking care of the environment.

Special guests included Dr. Joseph B. Oxendine, interim president of Catawba, and his wife, Adrienne.  A 1952 alumnus of the college, the interim president spoke to students attending the summit on July 22.


The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit or

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