The Center for Public Engagement with Science, formerly the Environmental Resource Program (ERP), was founded in 1985 by Frances M. Lynn, then a research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the UNC School of Public Health. With a $40,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the ERP began connecting UNC scientists with North Carolina residents concerned about water quality, land use and hazardous waste, among other issues.
Lynn’s vision was for the ERP to be an “independent source of applied science information so citizens can play an active and informed role in the making of environmental policies affecting them.” (UNC News press release, 5/14/85)
This vision embodied the bi-directional communication that has become commonplace today: directly connecting residents and university scientists to address community questions about how our environment can influence our health. In the early days the ERP team assigned student interns to community-based organizations that requested research assistance. They also organized regional and statewide workshops on issues such as air quality and sustainable development and prepared teachers to introduce environmental science topics into their classrooms. Richard (“Pete”) Andrews, who was then director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and a professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, was part of the initial ERP team, as were Melva Fager Okun and Mary Beth (Edelman) Powell.
In 1989, Okun (who later earned a DrPH from the School of Public Health) founded the Environmental Educators of North Carolina, which grew out of her desire to give educators who cared deeply about the environment an opportunity to meet and share information and resources. In the early 90s, she also participated in a forum sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to lay a foundation for implementing environmental health sciences curricula in K-12 classrooms. Since its inception, ERP has developed and led summer institutes for thousands of teachers. Early topics included water quality, recycling, solid and hazardous waste management, radioactive waste, the North Carolina hog industry, and sustainability. In 1991, ERP staff assisted N.C. schools in implementing some of the first school-based recycling programs.
Other noteworthy ERP initiatives included the following:
- Lynn’s scholarship on citizen participation in environmental decision making, including work focused on the siting of hazardous waste facilities, testing genetically engineered organisms, and in hazardous materials emergency planning.
- A national evaluation of the Toxic Release Inventory, demonstrating how community-based organizations, government and industry accessed and used the data. (1993)
- A five-year project to encourage NC decision makers to consider sustainable development concepts in public policy decisions. ERP convened an advisory committee of business, government, civic and religious leaders to advise the project and conducted regional meetings across the state. (1993-98)
- Guide to NC Environmental Groups (published annually from 1991-2004), which cataloged organizations working on environmental issues in North Carolina by topic and region, and the Carolina Health and Environment Community Center, an interactive online space designed to enable community-based organizations to locate and share information and expertise on environmental and public health issues. This site also housed the Guide (1997-2001).
- A photojournalism project with Edgecombe County youth displaced by Hurricane Floyd. (1999-2001)
- Guidance for community-based organizations interested in lead poisoning prevention. (2000)
- Founding, with other environmental faculty, the Manteo-based Outer Banks Field Site, with ERP’s emphasis on connecting UNC students to the local community. (2001-2011)
In 2019, in recognition of our substantial growth in funding, staff and focus areas, ERP was reorganized as the Center for Public Engagement with Science.