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Watch now: Earth Day finds growing interest in environmental careers, activism in Bloomington-Normal
BLOOMINGTON — Emily Schirmacher has always loved nature.
“I was the kid who would play with rocks,” said the Illinois Wesleyan University senior from Lake in the Hills.
But her interest in nature didn’t stop with childhood. She will graduate May 2 with a degree in environmental studies and a concentration in international sustainability. Her next stop is Spokane, Washington, where she will work in environmental education outreach with AmeriCorps.
Schirmacher is not alone.
As the 51st Earth Day is celebrated today, the idealism and passion behind the first one is still alive, and many of its ideas have gone mainstream — from curbside recycling to a variety of college majors in environmental studies, renewable energy and sustainability.
“We’ve had consistent student interest in environmental studies,” which has increased in the past few years, said Given Harper, professor of biology at IWU.
“I think students — young people — are aware that the Earth they are inheriting has some major environmental problems: climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution," said Harper.
“Young people want to do something to address these issues. … You can deny it for so long, but now we’re starting to see the effects,” said Harper, citing extreme weather events and wildfires as examples.
When Earth Day began, you heard, “Save the whales,” she said. “Now it’s ‘Save the people.’”
At Illinois State University, Matthew Aldeman, assistant professor in the department of technology, said, “We are seeing growing interest in renewable energy and sustainability. … Most of the students who study sustainable and renewable energy in the program where I teach are very passionate about this field.”
Adelman recently assisted a group of ISU students who have been selected as finalists for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar District Cup. As part of the competition, they were assigned to develop a comprehensive solar energy plan for the University of Nebraska’s campus at Lincoln.
But the work students are doing isn’t just theoretical and they aren’t waiting for graduation to get involved.
ISU’s Renewable Energy Society created a solar-powered grill for ISU’s Office of Sustainability and collaborated with Sunnyside Community Garden to design a solar greenhouse.
Schirmacher was part of a senior seminar at IWU that gathered data in hopes of expanding eligibility for the Illinois Solar for All program to a larger portion of west Bloomington by having it designated as an “environmental justice” community. Designation is based on a demonstrated higher risk of exposure to pollution based on environmental and socioeconomic factors.
Jahiel said, “The links between … diversity and justice issues and environmental issues have really become apparent."
Water quality and lead contamination issues in Flint, Michigan, started people thinking about environmental justice, but the disproportionate impact of climate change and COVID-19 also have shown the links, she said.
Adelman said, “Most of our graduates end up working in the energy field — either solar energy, wind energy, energy efficiency or more a conventional energy company like an electric utility company. In the future, I anticipate that we will see more of our students go into fields of energy storage and electric transportation.”
Chris Miller, distinguished professor of industrial technology at Heartland Community College, sees those changes coming, too.
“Our newest course we have is on batteries,” how to handle lithium batteries safely and how they are assembled in an electric vehicle, he said.
In addition, “battery storage can help fill those gaps” by storing electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, said Miller.
Heartland’s renewable energy/sustainability program looks at solar energy, wind energy, building automation and evaluation of buildings for energy efficiency. A wind turbine on campus helps supply its energy.
“Today, unequivocally, the career choices that students are looking for is a career or a job that has meaning” and is “a means to get a more sustainable planet, climate, environment,” said Miller. He added that the jobs come with good pay and the skills are relatable to many fields.
Adelman said, “It’s not just solar energy developers and wind energy operators — although those are certainly important. We need people that can monitor and improve indoor and outdoor air quality, create more productive crops with lower inputs, and develop innovative technologies that reduce or eliminate waste and greenhouse gases.”
Schirmacher said, “When I think about my graduating class, I know we’re passionate about making changes. If we put our minds to it, I know we can make a difference.”
She is concerned that “some of the destruction is so far gone, it’s hard to see how it can turn around quickly,” but “even though there’s a lot of stuff we can’t reverse, we can make things better.”
Harper said, “We need to listen to this generation of young people. They’re asking for help” to address environmental issues. “I think we owe it to them.”
Earth Day was founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in first held on April 22, 1970. Nelson was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in recognition of his work. (Wikipedia)
Pictured above, Earth Day is celebrated on Fifth Avenue in New York City on April 20, 1970.
This was the first year that Earth Day used the Internet as its principal organizing tool, and it proved invaluable nationally and internationally. Kelly Evans, a professional political organizer, served as executive director of the 2000 campaign. The event ultimately enlisted more than 5,000 environmental groups outside the United States, reaching hundreds of millions of people in a record 183 countries. (Wikipedia)
Pictured above, Indian schoolchildren hold a poster during a rally to "save the earth" on the occasion of International Earth day in New Delhi, India Saturday, April 22, 2000.
The first Earth Day family had participants and celebrants in two thousand colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it "brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform." (Wikipedia)
Pictured above, an estimated 7,000 persons jam a quadrangle at the Independence Mall in Philadelphia during Earth Week activities celebrating the eve of Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Senator Gaylord Nelson chose the date in order to maximize participation on college campuses for what he conceived as an "environmental teach-in". He determined the week of April 19–25 was the best bet as it did not fall during exams or spring breaks.
It also did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in spring to have decent weather. More students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other mid-week events—so he chose Wednesday, April 22. (Wikipedia)
Earth Day began in the United States and went global in 1990 with over 140 countries participating. In 2000, more than 180 countries participated. (Wikipedia)
Pictured above is a Sat., Aug. 27, 2011 photo provided by NASA and taken from aboard the international space station by astronaut Ron Garan. The sun rises above above the earth in one of the sixteen sunrises astronauts see each day. This sunrise image shows the rising sun as the space station flew along a path between Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The success of the first Earth Day celebrations gave greater priority than ever to protecting the environment. By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency opened for business in northwest Washington, D.C. (Archive.org)
Pictured above, William D. Ruckelshaus, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, talks of state plans to clean the air during a Washington news conference, May 31, 1972. Pending a court review, he approved plans for nine states and three territories: Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, West Virginia, Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa.
Notable contributions by organizations all over the world include:
• 14 million crayons have been recycled and donated to high poverty elementary schools by Crayon Collection.
• In 2011, 28,000,000 trees were planted across Afghanistan by Earth Day Network partner Green Club Afghanistan.
• 5,000,000 energy efficient stoves were installed in homes throughout Africa by The Paradigm Project.
Pictured above, school children rally in Katmandu, Nepal on Earth Day in 2002.
EarthDay.org lists many ways you can act to support the environment. Acts include submitting artwork to an online exhibition, supporting environmental education, and more. Learn more here.
Pictured above, a flag of the earth waves over the crowd on the west front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sunday, April 23, 1990. Over 100,000 people attended the rally in the nation’s capital to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Day.
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota
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