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Bringing environmental science to the people, IE launches Center for Public Engagement with Science

April 7, 2019
Sarah Yelton, left, environmental education coordinator for the UNC Institute for the Environment, and Tamlin Pavelsky, associate professor of geological sciences in the UNC Department of Geological Sciences, measure water levels using a staff gauge at Botany Pond on June 9, 2017, in Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

For the last 34 years, the UNC Institute for the Environment’s outreach unit, the Environmental Resource Program (ERP), has been committed to connecting environmental researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with communities in North Carolina. Now, with a greater emphasis on mutually beneficial partnerships in N.C. and beyond and a broader suite of activities, the ERP is renewing its charge for connecting UNC’s environmental research with public audiences, undergoing a name change to better reflect its work. The ERP is now the Center for Public Engagement with Science (CPES).

“As our staff size and funding base have grown in recent years, we’ve significantly increased our capacity to help UNC researchers connect with many different public audiences,” said Kathleen Gray, director of the Center and a clinical assistant professor at the UNC Institute for the Environment. “We now lead multiple citizen science projects, facilitate community and stakeholder engagement on a range of timely issues, and participate in national dialogue about how to effectively communicate environmental research in ways that prime people to take action. Our name needed to reflect this new reality.”

“I am extremely excited about the relaunch of ERP as the Center for Public Engagement with Science,” says Mike Piehler, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment and professor of marine sciences and environmental science and engineering. “ERP has a long, storied past at Carolina. For decades, they have been a sustained model of engaged scholarship, and they are on track to continue their fantastic work for the university, state, and beyond for decades to come.”

Dana Haine, K-12 Science Education Manager with the UNC Institute for the Environment, talks with participants during a conference at the North Carolina Botanical Garden titled “Exploring the Future of the Electric Grid” on June 20, 2017, in Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
The ERP was founded in 1985 by Frances M. Lynn, a research assistant professor in what is now the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, with support from Pete Andrews, now emeritus professor of public policy. At the time, the ERP sought to be an independent source of applied science information for the public to have an active and informed role in the making of environmental policies affecting them. For the last three decades, the ERP has been conducting environmental outreach and engaging NC communities, which predates the “broader impacts” and “community engagement” requirements of many research funding agencies. These requirements were designed to promote opportunities for research to benefit society or advance a specific societal outcome.

“People need to be able to understand science to make informed decisions about how they live their lives,” says Sarah Yelton, environmental education and citizen science program manager for the Center. “Through our approaches, we help them understand how their actions might have impacts that are not only going to affect the environment, but may have implications for their personal health and for public health in general.”

The Center for Public Engagement with Science employs a host of approaches and covers a range of topic areas. For example, its citizen science projects create opportunities for community members to be active participants in solving important research questions that affect their lives. Their STEM diversity initiatives aim to attract and retain under-represented minorities and women in environmental science career pathways. The Center also supports environmental science education programs across the state,  in schools, and informal settings like parks, museums, and community centers. All of its work places an emphasis on engaging people who are most directly impacted by environmental issues in conversation about sustainable, long-term solutions.

Kaylyn Gootman, left, a Ph.D. candidate and mentor, works with junior Savannah Swinea on a streambed clogging experiment. Swinea is an IDEA student with the CPES.
Drawing on its science communication expertise, the Center strives to make research accessible to a range of public audiences (from business and community leaders to educators, NGOs and policymakers), in ways that can have immediate impact. The Center staff also works closely with UNC environmental faculty to incorporate broader impacts in their research proposals and help them execute, when proposals are funded. The center also produces its own peer-reviewed research on community engaged scholarship, with an emphasis on how people understand and respond to environmental health messages.

The CPES has expertise in air quality, asthma, climate change, energy, environmental health, sustainability and water quality; and in each of these areas, the team has built on its early projects to deepen its expertise and improve its engaged scholarship.

Andrew George meets one-on-one with community members to collect well water samples.

For example, when a community reached out to UNC for answers when they weren’t sure if their well water was safe, a pilot initiative, Well Empowered, was launched. Building on that work, CPES partnered with Virginia Tech on a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to study well-contamination in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Concurrently, Gray is conducting a research study on whether people understand their well test results, which will inform future efforts to communicate about the potential health hazards associated with polluted well water. At the same time, the Center has created a K-12 educator training program for communities that are dealing with arsenic in wells, which is helping to increase knowledge of how arsenic gets into wells, how it impacts human health, and options for removing it from drinking water.

“The Center’s broad expertise in public engagement, when combined with the scholarship of UNC’s environmental faculty, positions us to facilitate cross-campus collaboration and contribute to creative solutions to current environmental problems,” says Gray.

High school students build wind turbines at UNC’s BeAM makerspace during CPES’s Energy LEAP program.
As the Center for Public Engagement with Science begins its renewal, check their website often for information on new programming and opportunities to collaborate.

“A big part of what we’d like to do it strengthen connections that we already have and really find ways to connect with new faculty, which is in line with IE’s desire to bridge and connect all of the different units on campus that are doing environmental work.” Gray says.