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Seattle Youth Climate Action Network Summer Superstars

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

The youth will save the world. Sentiments like this can seem overzealous in their predictions, but after spending a few hours interviewing the participants of the Seattle Youth Climate Action Network (SYCAN) Summer Learning Experience, I am convinced.

An intensive pilot program, SYCAN Summer Learning Experience invited high school students from communities across King County to participate in a dynamic four-week local exploration of all things climate while keeping their brains abuzz during summer break. Along with three interns from the City of Seattle’s Seattle Youth Employment Program, three educators from Woodland Park Zoo and generous support from Stolte Family Foundation and others, the group came together to learn about the effects of climate change on people and the environment—and what some Seattle institutions and professionals are doing about it.

Each participant was given an Orca card, gifted by King County Metro, and used public transit each day of the program to get to and from a wide range of locations all around Seattle. From the Bullitt Center to Safeco Field, Recology to Pacific Science Center and Seattle Aquarium, the group visited many different locations across the city. While touring these destinations and learning about sustainability and green practices, the group also met with climate experts from varying backgrounds and professions each week. 

Removing invasive species to protect the forest at Cheasty Greenspace

Tasting the spoils at Beacon Food Forest

They discussed climate change and the environment with Climate Impacts Group’s Meade Krosby, PhD and Heidi Roop, PhD, and impacts on wildlife with Woodland Park Zoo’s Senior Conservation Fellow Robert Long, PhD and Senior Interpretive Designer Sarah Werner.  They learned about marine impacts such as ocean acidification from Seattle Aquarium’s Youth Engagement Coordinator Dave Glenn and teens from their Youth Ocean Advocates program, and learned from a panel of climate scientists at the University of Washington. One day they even hopped aboard the Sally Fox water taxi to meet Harold Tanaguchi, Director of the King County Department of Transportation,  KCDOT’s Climate Change and Energy Manager Alex Adams, Senior Climate Change Specialist Matt Kuharic, and Climate Engagement Specialist Jamie Stroble—all before lunch.

Up close at the Seattle Aquarium

The group gets the low down at Seattle's waterfront.

In between their rigorous schedule of meetings, field trips and workshops, the group spent time discussing what they had learned and prepared for their culminating assignment, a climate communication project that would be presented to zoo staff and visitors at the end of their four weeks. Bolstered by tremendous tips for successful research practice thanks to Seattle Public Library staff and first-hand experience with zoo staff and other experts on climate communication, the teams were introduced to myriad ways in which to communicate climate advocacy and connect with their audience.

Learning about ocean acidification from Discovery Corps interns at the Pacific Science Center

In addition to getting to know one another through team-building activities and journaling, the teens also learned about actions they could take to address climate change in their own daily lives.

The group split into teams dedicated to three Pacific Northwest animals: gray wolves, snowy owls and river otters. Their culminating project would attempt to communicate the effects of climate change on each animal and its habitat. The teens brainstormed ways to capture their audience (zoo visitors) and keep them interested in learning about climate change with so many distractions around (more animals to see) while delivering a somber message (climate change) with an optimistic outcome (actions to save wildlife)—no easy task! Each team came up with visuals, presentation props and clear, concise messaging to impart on each passersby. 

Working on last minute details for their presentations to zoo visitors.

Team gray wolf focused on the wolf’s role as a top predator and keystone species, keeping the biome and all its inhabitants in balance. A robust diorama and a slew of fun facts about wolf habitat kept visitors engaged. The takeaway? A brochure with more information about how actions at home, such as eating less meat and carpooling, can help mitigate climate change.

Team river otter focused on educating the public on the biology of river otters and their connection to clean waterways. Armed with an otter comic and surprising facts about climate change’s effect on water systems, the team left visitors with an understanding of small actions they could take at home that could help fight climate change.

Team snowy owl created a demonstrative climate change game, where visitors were asked to remove snowballs (cotton balls) at each prompt read aloud by the guest. An example: Lemming populations are dwindling because of changes in the sea level, remove 15 snowballs. As the snowballs were removed, visitors uncovered a drawing underneath which depicted snowy owls in peril.

The energy and passion each participant had for educating others on the effects of climate change was demonstrated in their commitment to the program and their outstanding presentations. Here, in their own words, is a little more about why they chose to spend four weeks of their summer working to make the world a better place for animals and people alike.

Karen Juliet, 15 years old, SYCAN student
“The Seattle Youth Climate Action Network was an amazing experience that I've never gotten before and I doubt I'll ever get in school. The most fun and engaging part of the program was getting to go around various areas in Seattle and interact with professionals that work with climate change, asking them questions, and learning new material. Another fun side was getting to meet, bond with, work, and spend time with new people that were passionate about the same cause as I was for 4 weeks. The impact this program had on me was gaining inspiration and knowledge. I didn't think that as an individual we can do small actions that will reduce our carbon footprints and it definitely got me motivated to start working within my school and community to communicate about climate change and the various areas it affects. I got a whole new whole perspective about climate change and how it affects the environment, economy, and people.” 

Jenny Mears, Program Educator
“Working on the SYCAN Summer Learning Experience with this group of teens was absolutely amazing. Each day, we would hop on light rail or a bus to visit a sustainability hotspot or to hear about the incredible work that climate professionals are doing around the city. We delved into climate impacts on the environment, wildlife, the economy, and people, hearing from experts on topics such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, green technology, and climate justice. It was so inspiring to see the teens’ growth in knowledge and understanding of the impacts of climate change, as well as their passion and enthusiasm to make a difference in their community!” 

Benet Sparks, 17 years old, Seattle Youth Employment Program Intern
“I am an intern hired on by Seattle Youth Employment Program and I chose to work here at the zoo. I am here to assist the students here from different schools and help them work on their communications skills and learn about climate change and be able to speak comfortably to different people. Because climate change is real, the students and this generation and our kids are most affected by it, so educating them as early as possible is really important. We can’t stay on the route that we are on. Young minds are going to invent the new things—the new chances to make the ecofriendly choice. Just because we are 14 or 17 years old, it doesn’t matter how old we are, as long as we are passionate about it.
I knew I was passionate about the environment when I fell in love with animals when I was around ten years old. I grew up in rural Georgia, looking at insects, trees and birds. Moving to Seattle was a big change; I had to drive a long ways to get out of the city and into the evergreen part of the state. Missing that connection to nature in my backyard inspired me to get involved. I’m passionate about the animals living in the environment and how urban sprawl effects them. I fell in love with animal documentaries and I wanted to be the person who tells their stories. Now I want to be a zookeeper and attend UW or be a field conservationist.”

Aji Piper, 17 years old, Seattle Youth Employment Intern and member of the SYCAN Youth Leadership Committee
“I am here as an intern for SYCAN. The reason I’m here is supporting the youth that are going through this experience with my existing knowledge of climate change and advocacy. 
The importance of SYCAN existing is that it has the potential to reach people, to connect and teach about climate change because it’s not an environmental organization that does just one thing. It is a network that connects action, political advocacy, communication—and it’s an integral part of growing the youth movement. There is something for everyone at SYCAN, kids can find their own niche in the climate change movement. 
It’s not a question of whether or not kids will understand; they have a huge capacity and great imagination to solve these problems."
Eli Wiess and Aji Piper
Eli Weiss, Community Engagement Supervisor

“The SYCAN Summer Learning Experience is an exciting new opportunity for us to expand programming for the Seattle Youth Climate Action Network to include an intensive summer program designed to be accessible and relevant for teens from diverse communities in King County.  Our goal was to create a program that empowers participants to fight both climate change and summer learning loss while exploring the many dimensions of climate action around the city. Based on initial participant feedback, I think it is safe to say that our pilot year was a huge success and we look forward to refining the program model and sharing this opportunity with more teens next summer.”
Socially conscious, environmentally mindful and digitally sophisticated beyond even the generation before them—this curious, resourceful and altruistic cohort of young people are convinced they can curb climate change and find solutions for clean technology while protecting earth’s most precious resources. I can’t wait to see them prove it.

Huge thanks to the range of community groups who made this program possible and special thanks to our partners who supported the SYCAN Summer Learning Experience: Stolte Family Foundation, Seattle Public Libraries, King Country Department of Transportation, Seattle Youth Employment Program, Seattle Aquarium, Pacific Science Center, Climate Solutions, UW College of the Environment, and UW Climate Impacts Group. 

Seattle Youth Climate Action Network was launched by Woodland Park Zoo in January 2015 with initial funding from The Ocean Project, and represents a new local partnership between a range of climate and environment focused community groups and including teen programs at Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium and Pacific Science Center. Since 2015, more than 500 teens have participated in monthly events, trainings, action campaigns, and our annual Youth Climate Action Summit!

Seattle Youth Climate Action Network (CAN) empowers teens to address climate change in their communities through education, leadership, and action.