“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, you still can. And, so can the world.”
The new take on the old adage promotes Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that is using repurposed technology to fight illegal logging in the world’s rainforests. Founded by physicist, inventor – and National Geographic explorer – Topher White, the organization is reaching out to aspiring engineers and offering them the opportunity to change the world while they are still in school.
“This is a brand-new effort and our first time expanding our work into the education realm,” White said as he took a break from working with students at STEM Academy of Hollywood. “We are still in the process of developing some structure around the program, with the goal to get the kids working with their hands as fast as possible. These students look like they’re having a great time, so I think we’re on the right track.”
White invented the “guardian,” which uses discarded android cell phones to record audio in the rainforest that law enforcement can monitor for sounds of illegal deforestation activities. The solar-powered devices are installed high in trees and operate around the clock.
Students from STEM Academy – which offers biomedical and engineering career pathways – were the first to build guardian devices as part of a pilot that organizers hope will evolve into a national program.
“The opportunity was brought to us through the efforts of one of our science teachers, Susanna Hall,” principal Paul Hirsch said. “She does a great deal of work to keep our students excited about careers that allow them to put engineering principles and concepts to practical use.”
Hall helped arrange for an after-school “Rain Forest Hackathon,” which she said exposed students to real-world applications of what they are learning in the classroom.
“Our students are getting a continuation of concepts they’ve been learning while getting a preview of things they haven’t yet learned,” she said. “We have invited anyone with an interest in applying engineering concepts in ways that help protect the environment to come in after school and get some hands-on experience with something new, exciting and incredibly important. No experience necessary.”
Hall, who has taught at STEM Academy for four years, is constantly pursuing new ways to get students – particularly those from underrepresented populations – excited about practical applications for science and engineering. She is on point for the school’s chapter of Girls Build L.A., a Promise Grant-funded program that encourages female students to use STEM principles to promote social change.
Hall’s efforts to promote enthusiasm about engineering – especially among girls – was evident during the recent workshop with White. About half of the participants were girls, including senior Brisely Nemlemus.
“I have always thought doing things with my hands is a lot more interesting than just sitting in class and taking notes,” she said. “Things like taking apart mother boards and putting them back together to understand how they really work. The engineering pathway has allowed us to do a lot of these kinds of things.”
Nemlemus said that an interest in environmental science made the rainforest activity especially appealing.
“I took an environmental science class,” she said. “We learned about deforestation, and it got me really curious about what I can do to make a difference.”
Hall said that exposure to programs like Rainforest Connection helps students link science and engineering with humanitarian causes.
“I’ve talked with many students – particularly our young girls – who feel they have to choose between a career in science and engineering versus one that is more people focused,” she said. “Spending time with someone like Topher White helps them see how, through creative thinking, they can apply what they’re learning in ways that directly help people and the planet. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. They can do it all.”
Joining the STEM Academy students were students from nearby Santa Monica Charter Elementary School, which is part of what is known as the Hollywood STEM corridor. White gave a brief presentation on how his knowledge of physics led to his ideas about re-engineering devices to protect the rain forests and combat climate change. Students then divided into groups, in which high school students helped guide their younger counterparts on the basics of drilling, soldering and working with electrical components.
“I really liked working with the kids and how we are all connected and learning at the same time,” said STEM Academy senior M.D. Islam. “We get to be like students and teachers at the same time, which is pretty awesome.”
Islam plans to apply to several University of California campuses and major in civil engineering.
“I’ve always been really into math and science, and so the engineering pathway here at my school really called to me,” he said. “Over time we’ve done a lot to projects in a lot of different disciplines of engineering, and I really like civil engineering, because I am interested in designing and building structures that people need.”
Hirsch said that strengthening the educational thread among the grade levels is a vital part of the school’s model.
“This is what we do,” he said. “We collaborate closely with our elementary and middle school partners in the Hollywood community – traditional, pilot and charter school alike. The results are what you see here.”
Hours after the elementary students returned to their home campus, many STEM Academy students stayed around and took full advantage of their time with White, who led them step-by-step in building their own guardian devices. The goal is to transport their devices to actual rainforests in the Amazon and elsewhere around the globe, which they will be able to monitor via an app on their mobile phones.
Hall smiled with satisfaction as she observed about a dozen students around a table, building guardians.
“If anyone ever asks what’s so great about project-based learning, this is it,” she said. “These students could be anywhere right now, but they are choosing to be here. This is what we aim to do as educators. Not only teach them the concepts but also expose them to the kinds of cutting-edge creativity that will help them change – and save – the world.”