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On October 27, 2022, a group of young people presented the findings of their environmental quality research to the Alameda County Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors, which is comprised of representatives from City Councils of each Alameda County city, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. During the presentation, the youth revealed that they have found alarming levels of lead in soil samples collected from public parks and neighborhoods in West and East Oakland, CA. The young people shared the fact that of the 150 samples they collected, processed, and analyzed, a very high percentage contain hazardous levels of lead. Joint Powers Authority directors were impressed by the work of the youth and expressed their intent to take steps to elevate the issue.
The youth who delivered the presentation were participants of a program called Energy Interns, based at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and presented in collaboration with local youth-serving community groups including The Good Brothas Network and Lao Family Community Development. Kevin Cuff, director of the program, and Jim Neiss-Cortez, instructor, shared the mission of the program, which is to develop youths’ awareness of environmental justice issues in their community and increase their capacity to use science to address them. In doing so, the program also aims to expose youth to careers in environmental science, public health, management, and advocacy. The Energy Interns program is made possible by a three-year National Science Foundation Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program grant (award #1849958) awarded to the University of California at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (the Lawrence).
Program participants took turns presenting their findings to Joint Powers Authority directors, sharing graphs that showed the portion of their samples that exceeded the state of California EPA’s acceptable limits of lead contamination. Their data was derived from samples obtained from sites nearby to where they lived, worked, and went to school. Over 82% of the samples collected in East Oakland had unacceptable levels of lead, and over 75% of samples that were collected in West Oakland. The presenters expressed particular concern about risks associated with such high levels of lead contamination, especially the life-long neurological damage that can occur for youth who experience lead poisoning.
To build a diverse workforce and achieve socioeconomic well-being for a larger segment of the general population, now, more than ever, youth in urban communities need access to effective workforce development opportunities. Given that the effects of climate change are steadily becoming more noticeable and severe, it is especially important that such opportunities relate to emerging fields engaged in addressing associated needs and demands. Two such fields are clean energy and environmental health, which will drive the need for “green jobs” and environmental monitoring workforce development. The Energy Interns program seeks to surmount this challenge by providing youth who reside in low-income, urban communities in the San Francisco Bay Area with STEM learning experiences that expose them to clean energy and environmental science-related career pathways. The internship program supports the development of a well-honed set of skills, understandings, and awareness that facilitate a higher degree of participation in STEM-related educational, occupational, and civic activities.
The program partners with community organizations and has taken place in Oakland and San Francisco. During the past year, over 40 youth have participated in the program, and there are another 18 months left of the program. Research on the impacts of the program is ongoing, but early results indicate that youth who have participated in the program have expressed greater confidence in pursuing STEM careers and greater awareness of the types of careers they could pursue. Youth shared:
“Before… I would not imagine myself applying for any type of green job or anything like that… but I think now in the future, I probably will.”
“I feel like more opened up to science careers and views, cuz now I’ve seen the potential of how science-based view could be… connecting back with the community.”
The research will also examine for whom and under which conditions participation in Energy Interns has the greatest impact. These findings will yield valuable insights and model components that can help to fortify other training programs with STEM components, which will increase their capacity to serve youth in their quest for rewarding careers/better lives.
“Results of our research further illustrate the power of providing youth with high-quality, authentic, and relevant community-based research that enables participants to seamlessly connect STEM learning with lived experiences,” shared program director Kevin Cuff.
For more information view the Energy Interns program or contact program director Kevin Cuff.
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