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Students Shine a Spotlight on Sustainability Efforts in Earth Week Celebration
By Kathy McPherson

Earth Day is celebrated around the world on Friday, April 22 — but at Durham Academy, it’s Earth Week because the celebration encompasses this entire school week. 

“Earth Day is the biggest secular observance in the world. It started in the U.S. in 1970, and it has just expanded and expanded,” said Tina Bessias ’78, who serves as the Upper School’s sustainability coordinator in addition to leading the independent learning program. The worldwide observance draws attention to the environment and promotes conservation and sustainability.

Durham Academy’s Earth Week celebration is being led by ninth-graders, who are educating students from Preschool through Upper School about the importance of protecting the Earth’s resources. All DA ninth-graders participate in a year-long Physical Education and Self and Community course, and this is the second year that a sustainability component, taught by Bessias, is part of the curriculum.

The ninth-graders learn about climate change and biodiversity and the efforts to improve sustainability that are going on in the community and around the world. The course takes place during the spring semester, and students’ Earth Week projects are the culmination of the course. 

“With 120 ninth-graders, we have a lot of energy that can go into a lot of different projects, so we've expanded it to Earth Week to allow time and space for all the creativity and energy of these ninth-graders,” Bessias explained.

Their 55 projects include seed planting, nature walks and science activities with Preschool and Lower School students; an assembly presentation and work with the sustainability committee at the Middle School; and events throughout the week at the Upper School, culminating in DA’s first-ever Sustainability Fair on the quad this afternoon and a goal of a “zero waste” Special Olympics Durham County Sports Showcase on campus Friday. Among the Sustainability Fair’s offerings were a bicycle-powered smoothie maker, a beekeeping demonstration, a station for students to create upcycled birdfeeders and information on biking in Durham.

Ninth-graders Cate Everett and Beckett Moylan visited Anna Larson’s fourth-grade class on Tuesday morning to teach students about the importance of mushrooms as an environmentally friendly food source and helped them plant mushroom spawn to grow Wine Cap mushrooms at home.

“Fungus is something that I'm very interested in and I like to share that passion with other people,” Moylan said.  “I also think it's important in terms of Earth Day and Earth Week to spread awareness, especially with the younger generation, because it is an issue that they are going to have to deal with later in their lives. It's good to get them aware of their environment and show that being sustainable and treating the Earth well can also be fun. And this activity, I think, shows that very well.”

Everett liked talking with fourth-graders about the environmental impact of food choices. “I thought they would be able to understand it, have some time to really think about it and maybe pursue it more,” she said. “One of the things that was important to me is that they can learn about a different food source, because when I was that age I didn't really know much about food and sustainable food and it's such a big energy drain in our environment.”

Bessias said making dietary changes is one of the best ways to become more sustainable as individuals. “We can just start by reducing the amount of meat we eat, and most especially by going vegan, we can dramatically reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we emit.”

That led ninth-graders Sarp Erden, Andrew Lim, Joe Ruth and Joel Tapper — all meat eaters who enjoy hamburgers — to launch a 72-hour vegan challenge as their Earth Week project. The four are maintaining a vegan diet for 72 hours and encouraged others to join them at the Sustainability Fair.

Lim said deforestation to create farmland is a worldwide problem, while Tapper and Ruth cited methane emissions from beef production that are affecting the environment and climate change.

“I wanted to participate in the vegan-for-72-hours challenge to help the environment,” Erden said, “and also because I feel like it'd be a fun challenge to participate in with my friends and other peers that also want to participate.”

Thomas Pollard ’24 said he became interested in sustainability when he took the mandatory Self and Community course as a ninth-grader. Pollard likes spending time outdoors, hiking and camping, and “I had never seen climate change as a real threat to doing the things I loved. When I took the ninth-grade living sustainably course, I started to see a fuller picture of how climate change was posing a threat to those things and not only posing a threat to the things I love, but to the whole world.”

Wanting to learn more, this fall Pollard took Environmental Sustainability, a semester-long elective class co-taught by Bessias and Upper School environmental science teacher Andrea Caruso. “I learned a ton of great stuff in that class,” he said. “I totally recommend it. It was one of my most fun classes so far at DA. We're still going even though the semester is over. We're still doing work and trying to make DA more sustainable and produce more sustainable alumni through teaching and connecting and all sorts of great stuff.”

Ash Bonda-Grandurant '23 designed and created an "Earth Day is for All" chalk image in the Upper School quad, and Maika Quiambo '23 worked with him to color it in.

Senior Rocco Pacchiana likes mountain-biking, fly-fishing, camping and being outdoors, but said he was only somewhat aware of climate change and related issues before taking the Environmental Sustainability elective this year. 

“I've been able to gain a lot of knowledge about these huge problems like biodiversity and climate change, global warming and really just how big of a massive issue this is and how often it's overlooked by a lot of people,” Pacchiana said. “Looking at our world's response to these issues, it feels like it's definitely something that doesn't get enough attention or something that people are trying to avoid. And there's definitely just a lack of agency to take action against these issues.”

Pacchiana said “Durham Academy is in a really unique position, being an educational institution, to inspire and empower the youth in our country to take action against this. I think DA has a responsibility to educate students as much as they can, in as many different settings as possible, whether it be outdoors or interdisciplinary classes.”

Bessias said the six students in this fall’s Environmental Sustainability elective “really went into depth about exploring solutions, and their final project for the course was to use design thinking to devise and implement a plan to make DA more sustainable.”

The six made presentations to Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and the Administrative Team, and Bessias said they “are continuing to press for DA to make a real plan … and make serious strides toward improving the sustainability of our operations and expanding our education about this.”