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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 16, 2012

With art by Forest Byrd

Finding opportunity in the midst of disaster

Among the thousand e-mails we received this week was one forwarded from Demian Singleton, the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Guilderland schools. He’s someone we cover regularly, so we decided to read past the greeting.

“As you are well aware,” wrote Singleton, “the Schoharie School District was hit very hard by the floods.”

We had been to Schoharie and covered the devastation there after Tropical Storm Irene swept through the valley in August. So we kept reading.

“They are working hard to rebuild and replenish their technology infrastructure through a variety of emergency grants and other funding streams,” wrote Singleton, noting that it “puts things in perspective as we wrestle with our own challenges.”

Guilderland, a large suburban district in a relatively wealthy community, is facing a $2.6 million shortfall in revenues if it rolls over its current $89 million budget while the rural Schoharie district is considering shared services and possible consolidation as it faces a million-dollar gap with a budget of about $20 million.

Schoharie is dealing not only with the tax-levy cap faced by every district in New York, it is also dealing with an eroded tax base as homes, farms, and businesses were hurt or destroyed by the summer floods.

What followed after Singleton’s message were instructions on how to vote for Schoharie in The Samsung Solve For Tomorrow technology grant competition, the final stage of which involves a “People’s Choice Vote.”

“Some of the districts we are competing with have nearly 20,000 students, while we have…less than 1,000…” the missive said. “The technology will provide our students with resources that otherwise would not be possible at this time.” The voting ends on March 12.

We did a Google search and easily found the Samsung page with the 12 finalists. We don’t generally give credence to votes that are based on fans showing their allegiance as opposed to judging the worth of contestants. We’ve covered too many competitions where the “winners” are those who can muster the largest hometown crowd.

We’re also put off by some corporate contests that subvert science for glitzy, surface solutions rather than rewarding the sort of study that often takes years of dedicated work to reach a level of expertise that genuinely solves a problem.

Still, when we looked at the page, a grid of 12 videos from schools spread across the country, we were tempted. Samsung had 1,500 applicants answering the challenge: “Show how science or math can help the environment in your community.” The field had been narrowed to a dozen.

We clicked on the button for the Mercer School in Wisconsin and listened to some unpretentious country kids talk in earnest about attaching radio collars to 12 martins, an endangered species. The data they gathered will go to help foresters with better management.

We were hooked and decided to watch all 12 videos. The kids in Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming were pushing recycling and had hidden cameras in their school that recorded students’ reactions as a trash can they designed shot back refuse at them; the recalcitrant students learned to recycle the refuse instead. Middle-schoolers in Palm Coast, Fla., took a more serious approach to recycling in their slick video, and built an origami house of recycled paper to raise awareness about homelessness.

The Desert Wind Middle School in Maricopa, Ariz. is in a town that was founded in 2003 with a population of 1,000, which had shot up to more than 43,000 in 2010. Poor air quality followed development. The kids there built air-quality monitors meant to draw response from state and federal officials.

Three schools had projects dealing with invasive species. The middle-schoolers in Pleasant Hills, Pa. started their video with alien music, before describing their program to contain Japanese knotweed. “Kids can help,” they said. “We can make a difference.”

Lawrence County High School in Moulton, Ala. took on the problem of invasive wild hogs. They interviewed farmers and “even a couple of Ph.D.s” about methodical trapping techniques, which they posted online on a “wild hog log.”

Students at Jefferson Township Middle School in New Jersey said their community depended on its lakes for tourism, recreation, and beauty. They launched an awareness campaign about invasive species like the zebra mussel and, in a polished presentation, showed the app they created that would provide descriptions of invasive species and allow their location to be tracked through a global positioning system.

Preserving and protecting the environment was a recurring theme among the finalists. Middle-schoolers from Folsom, Calif. built models in their “Project Lead the Way” course that would help the environment, like a robot to keep the street clean. Students at the Davenport School of the Arts in Florida transformed a barren field into “a learning oasis” complete with a hydroponic garden. And students at the only other New York State finalist, Groton High School, looked at society’s waste as a resource and built a barn of salvaged materials. “Our generation will have to get creative and do more with less,” they said.

We saved the best for last. Our two favorite projects — one homegrown in Schoharie and the other from the most northwestern corner of our country — show students grappling with problems that are of great importance to their communities.

They’re worth looking at — online at https://pages.samsung.com/us/sft/video/index.jsp#top.

The students at the Neah Bay School in Washington, on a Makah Indian reservation, describe Tatoosh Island, which the Makah people had traditionally used for fishing and seal-hunting. A native drum provides a riveting rhythm as old black-and-white pictures tell the story.

Later, Tatoosh Island was used by the federal government, which polluted the soil with diesel fuel. Too much soil was polluted to make it feasible to haul it away, so the students are growing fungus that they hope will clean the soil without further polluting the environment. If the project is successful, they hope the process will be used at contaminated sites around the world. As of Wednesday, Neah Bay had just 1,832 votes.

The Schoharie High School video — which on Wednesday had 9,068 votes — shows scenes of the lush valley, described as “the breadbasket of the Revolution.” Pictures follow, depicting the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene, and the floodwaters that contaminated crops. Sediment from the Catskills washed into the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, says the narrative student voice, which will be expensive to dredge to restore habitat.

The floodwaters with contaminants settled on the soil. The Schoharie students, using data from Cornell, analyzed soil samples and came up with “surprising results.” Contaminants had not seeped into the fertile farmland. The students hypothesized that five inches of rain that fell before Irene hit on Aug. 28 may have saturated the soil so the contaminants couldn’t penetrate.

Drainage may be a problem in the future and nutrients may leach from the soil, the video concludes, noting that the project “gave agricultural students firsthand insights on how to best manage man’s interface with nature.”

What most struck us about the Schoharie video was its professional presentation of scientific investigation. No mention was made of the community’s great loss. There is no whining, no begging. Rather, there is a sense of well-grounded exploration — of teachers and students in what could be a devastating situation using it, instead, as a learning opportunity.

Schoharie High School has earned our vote.

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