Five Earth Day Activities That Promote STEM Studies for a Sustainable Planet

Orcas like these can be seen off the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington State. iStock Photo.

Have you ever laid in the hammock in the backyard of your abuela’s house listening to an evening chorus of crickets as you stared up at the trees and the sky above, wondering about the mysteries of the universe? Did your abuela bring you a glass of fresh mango or passion fruit juice? Even if you haven’t experienced this, it’s highly likely someone in your family remembers a time in their childhood—perhaps back in Latin America—where this was a regular occurrence.

According to a 2015 poll from the environmental groups Earthjustice and GreenLatinos, registered U.S. Latino voters are as concerned about the state of their natural environment as they are by their social one. In fact, 72% of them said they would likely to vote in favor of enhanced environmental policies or for candidates running an on an environmental platform.

In fact, environmental issues are social issues, especially in low-income or minority communities. For example, people in impoverished urban centers don’t always have access to fresh, nutritious food and folks in migrant communities may be suffer from water infected with industrial waste. And while it’s important to teach young people that their vote can curb these problems, it’s also important to teach them that they can get civically and scientifically involved even before they are of voting age.

Start a Recycling Campaign

Kids can be instrumental in promoting recycling services in their schools. iStock photo.

Earlier this month, a fourth grader in South Florida silenced a Miami-Dade County Public School Board meeting with a presentation about the ways students like him are forced to pollute the environment with plastics just by consuming the cafeteria’s food. He told board members it amazed him how public schools in his native Mexico, which had far less money than theirs, managed to wash reusable plates, cups, and silver wear, whereas in his current elementary school, all lunch containers and utensils are plastic and they’re thrown into the garbage after one use. After urging the schoolboard to consider alternatives for lunch packaging and distribution, he told them he was already changing his classmates’ behaviors by helping them to gather used papers from their coursework to be recycled on the premises.

If he can do that, so can you. You can lobby your school board, your apartment complex, or even your city if any of the above don’t have recycling services or use a lot of unnecessary single-use products. You might also campaign right at home by offering to help your parents pack your lunches in reusable containers.

Start a Community Garden

Community gardens promote healthy and sustainable eating while clearing the air of carbon. iStock Photo.

Caring for the environment can also mean caring for yourself by making healthy food choices. In fact, building a garden at your school, in your neighborhood, or even in planters on your apartment deck can help reduce the carbon footprint because it takes a lot of gas to transport produce across the country or the world. Plus, plants have this amazing ability to imbibe carbon dioxide, digest it, and then belch it out as clean, fresh air, all while giving you healthy calories, vitamins, and nutrients to keep you going and growing.

Take a Hike

An Instagram post from Latino Outdoors.

We know that Latinos are the fastest growing demographic of the U.S. population, but according to the environmental nonprofit organization Latino Outdoors, they’re one of the most underrepresented at America’s national parks. That’s a huge missed opportunity if you consider how many national parks are within a few minutes or hours of large Latino communities.

In California, you can scale cliffs and watch whales in the Channel Islands, observe cacti blooms in the Mojave Desert or Death Valley, or gaze what feels like a mile into the sky to see the tops of giant, old growth trees in Sequioa and Kings Canyon National Parks. In Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park can teach you how some of North America’s earliest inhabitants harmonized with nature by building their dwellings right into the area’s cliffs, and in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, you can see cold climate cloud forests and orca migrations, all while discovering the northern routes of early Spanish explorers. In Florida, an airboat trip into the Everglades can get you up close and personal with alligators, generating a discussion on what happens when big real estate development drains the state’s vital wetlands. Plus, a kayaking or snorkeling trip through Biscayne or Dry Tortugas National Parks can give you a good idea of how big industry waste from construction and cruise ships impacts the coral and the vibrant marine ecosystem the reefs hold.

Instagramming for Ecology

A jellyfish washes ashore in Miami Beach. Photographing and sharing interesting findings in our natural environment can help scientists catalogue and analyze the current state of the planet. Photo by Julienne Gage.

Chances are, once you get excited about nature, you’ll spot exciting signs of it everywhere—whether you’re out in those national parks or just walking home from school. And thankfully, the digital age makes your work as a citizen scientist pretty much instantaneous.

Live near the ocean? The International Sea Keepers Society, made up of ocean conservationist yachters, can get your school or youth group on a vessel for a “floating classroom” experience. They’ll teach you about native and invasive maritime species, help you recognize the SOS signs of struggling coral, and give you the camera gear you need to get in the water and start documenting. Your findings will then be uploaded into a massive database that helps full-time scientists study an ocean or a coastline’s overall health.

Living further inland? Why not develop an appreciation for entomology by photographing the secret lives of grasshoppers, dragonflies, or ladybugs and other creatures living just outside your front door? There’s even a reward for doing it. The 2019 City Nature Challenge is a grassroots project encouraging residents across the world to explore the ecology of their metropolitan areas by documenting interesting or unusual findings in photographs and posting them through their social media channels. You just go out looking for wildlife, take a picture, and share. Then your city can win in the categories for most number of observations, most species, and most participants. There’s even an age-specific educational toolkit to facilitate the process.

Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute

Trash collection can be turned into a fun outdoor group activity that helps youth consider their natural surroundings. iStock Photo.

Once you’re out there loving and respecting nature, you’re bound to start noticing the ways in which we humans contaminate it. It pretty much goes without saying that you should be sure to carry a garbage bag with you on trails or to the beach so that you can dispose of your own litter properly, but how about setting an example by picking up a few other pieces left by others? Why not go out and clean up a beach or a park or a campground as a class or youth group project?

With all this environmental education and leadership development, you might be setting yourself up for a vibrant academic and professional career in the STEM fields. With the way things are currently going, Mother Earth is really going to need your help.