Inspiring students to pursue science, fight climate change and impact the community

Inspiring students to pursue science, fight climate change and impact the community

By Brittany Edelmann and Carly Menker, Photos by Carly Menker, May 1, 2022 –

Janyiah, a ninth-grade student at Gary Comer College Prep, started “falling in love with science” three years ago in the South Side school’s proactive STEM curriculum. She enjoyed the mix of her two favorite subjects: math and reading. Janyiah, in the Comer middle school at the time, is now a freshman at Comer Prep in Jessica Stevens’ environmental science class. Janyiah said she and her classmates transmitted electricity to a light bulb, and “it was so cool.”

Skylan, also a ninth grader at Gary Comer College Prep, is finding her passion through Steven’s class as well. “I want to be a wildlife conservationist,” Skylen said. She said she noticed how Stevens is an environmental scientist and seeing what she does and how she goes out into the field really helped her decide what she wants to do.

At the age of 14, Sanaa was a Green Teen at the Gary Comer Youth Center when she was “working as a small little agricultural farmer,” and started learning about growing food and environmental science. Then she graduated and became a part of the Comer Crops Program. She loves seeing the growth, seeing food that she planted and seeing Maine in the summer to give more students the chance to experience this type of work and provide further inspiration and confidence to pursue a career in science.

Scientists come to speak with current students often. Stevens said students tell her how much they love talking to a “real scientist,” which shows them the researchers aren’t as “boring” as they originally thought.

Students in the middle and prep school and members of the youth center, all on the Comer Education Campus at 7200 S. Ingleside Ave., where the focus is on impacting their communities and beyond through hands-on, interactive learning related to science.

The underlying hope of founder  Gary Comer had in regard to the program was about “how young people could learn here and then go out in the world and make a difference,” Marji Hess, previous urban agricultural director  at GCCP, said at the 2021 annual Comer Climate Conference. The conference brings together top scientists from around the world to discuss their research that documents climate change and urgent solutions. Hess now leads a new Comer Family Foundation initiative empowering youth to address the climate crisis.

Students at the prep school (GCCP) have had opportunities to travel to Mongolia on field trips with scientists, experiential learning they took back into the classroom to inspire other students. Hess also said GCCP students have  traveled with her to Yellowstone National Park for a week and “every single one of them said it changed their lives in a way that they never expected.”

Patricia Joyner was one of those students. She went to Yellowstone three years in a row and  she’s now an undergraduate studying with Aaron Putnam, an assistant professor of Earth sciences with the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and a scientist affiliated with Comer climate research initiative. Another initiative they hope to implement is to take current GCCP students to Maine in the summer to give more students the chance to experience this type of work and provide further inspiration and confidence to pursue a career in science.

Stevens implements “culturally relevant and hands-on,” learning with the goal that her students “become scientifically literate adults and hopefully climate leaders.” Stevens is also working on piloting a student-centered climate change unit for the first time this year, which will include things like the topic of heat islands but specific to Chicago.

She received a grant to purchase handheld air quality sensors so her students can do a long-term investigation into air quality around the school. They hope to compare different areas around the school and how air quality affects human health. “Most of our students are in those zones and are in the communities that experienced the worst of environmental effects due to redlining,” so this experiment is especially impactful, Stevens said.

A day in the life of her classroom offers experiences her students say they cherish and enjoy.

On a typical day, Stevens teaches science at Gary Comer College Prep in Classroom 109. Decorated with posters promoting safety and respect, she works hard to instill lessons like these while teaching her students to be passionate about science. Science did take a bit of a temporary back-burner role after the school returned to in-person class from remote learning during the pandemic. There was “a lot of social emotional learning,” said Stevens. It’s “important that they know how to be a social human being again in a classroom.”


Stevens’ class is working on building a model power grid as part of their Resources and Consumption unit. Her teaching approach involves a lot of hands-on learning as well as demonstrations. To start, she asks students, “How are you feeling today?” She asks for a thumbs up for a color such as yellow or green, which can indicate emotions such as pleasant or blessed. She then engages students by asking them critical questions they answer to build familiarity with the topic. She makes it clear to students that “science isn’t about being right, it’s about figuring things out.”


Stevens emphasized the fundamentals of scientific learning focuses on the scientific method. It’s a process of acquiring knowledge that incorporates careful observation, skepticism  and assumptions based on interpretation of observations along with documentation of methods and data that can be repeated by others.  When it comes to science, student Elicia said she loves how “you can learn new things about the whole world and earth and nature.”


As class continues, Stevens explains the importance of different types of energy, asking students questions about it as she goes along. She elaborates on how friction is a type of kinetic energy that converts into thermal energy. With 24 kids in a class, keeping everyone focused is a priority for Stevens along with students them remaining clear on the content. “It’s really important to me that my students understand the ‘why’ behind what we’re learning,” she said.


Students are intensely focused in Stevens’ class as eager participation shows. Their engagement with the content reflects results in the caliber of their hard work as well as in their growth and love for science. When she asks a question, multiple hands raise to answer. She says she’s not the student’s favorite the first half of the year – the class is tough. But by the second half of the year, the students come around and they get used to her teaching and grow to love it. Steven says while she has “very high expectations,” she knows just how capable they are.


When working on a unit in class, the lesson plans are designed to go through the topic in a way that is accessible and tangible to students. Typically, they encompass a basic scientific question, covering all aspects of it as Stevens leads the class through it. “We like to have a lot more hands- on, involved story lines,” she said. “Meaning that [students] actually investigate the entire problem, from start to finish.”
One example of Stevens’ hands-on learning is finding the answer to the question: “How does steam generate electricity?” Stevens took her class through a demonstration of this and visually showed them in a session how this occurs. Another example of a lab of hers included the history of the electricity lab, which was equally as interactive. Jordyn, one of Steven’s students, said what he likes about science is seeing the experiments and “the cool stuff.”


There are no textbooks in Stevens’ classes. Instead, she’s adopted a more student-involved method: the Interactive Science Notebook that each student makes. “Environmental science is always changing,” she said. The textbooks wouldn’t be able to give the same enrichment and learning that Stevens’ handout and lesson packets can. Stevens also says cutting out pages and contributing other resources, creating the notebook, can give their mind’s a break and be calming and therapeutic for students too.


This year, Stevens and Hess worked together with Alice Doughty, a professor at the University of Maine, to create a climate change unit based on the Next Generation Science Standards and Problem Based Learning. Not only did they want to bolster the breadth of their science program, but they also wanted to focus on “building a better curriculum using the next generation’s standards, which are the federal standards that all students would be using throughout the country.” In doing so, this would improve the futures of all the Gary Comer Prep students. “We’re switching to that to give our students more equitable opportunities and background and support before they go off to higher education,” Stevens said.


To make their Interactive Science Notebooks, there is a lot of cutting, pasting and handouts involved. These notebooks serve as a reference for students throughout their learning process where Stevens focuses on skill-based grading, “to watch how students’ progress and see if they’re going to be supported in their next level of classes.”


This class demonstration showed a direct application of changing potential energy to kinetic and thermal energy to steam and sound energy. Before starting, water waits to boil on a hot plate as the first step. Stevens asked students, “What will happen? What type of energy?” “Nuclear?” one student asked. “Maybe see steam?” students replied. Even when students become frustrated at times with science terminology, Stevens reminds them, “Terminology is hard. That’s a part of science.”


To make sure that every student feels engaged in the lesson and can see, Stevens walks around with parts of the demonstration bringing it around to them. Stevens and Hess focus on supporting their students in any way they can, especially through their scientific learning. “We’re trying to help our young people build resiliency and leadership skills,” Hess said.


Students take vigorous notes as Stevens continues to explain the background to her energy demonstration. A crucial part of the learning is the student engagement that Stevens facilitates by sparking discussion about the topic that the class is focusing on while sprinkling in content questions to get students thinking. “I love the discussions we have in this classroom,” student Kimiyrah said.


By lighting a flame inside a mini steam engine, Stevens can generate enough heat to make the wheel turn on the engine. When she opens the top, a whistling sound is made, reflecting the energy that is converted to sound. Each student watches Stevens with a razor-sharp focus. “They bring so much background knowledge to my class and I love finding ways to incorporate their existing knowledge and experiences into Environmental Science,” she said.


All eyes are on the demonstration as students investigate the outcome of the energy changes in the experiment. One way Stevens gets her students so engaged is by bringing the meaning of the lesson to experiences that matter in their lives. “Right now, we’re learning about how we generate electricity and transfer it to power our homes,” she said. “I framed this as ‘How do you charge your phone?’ They were really into the lessons after that.”


Emphasizing the values Stevens instills in her students, they help clean up out of respect on their way out of the classroom. Instead of rushing out, many linger to chat with Stevens, a connection to the quality of teaching she gives to her students. “This is my favorite class,” said Janyiah (not shown here). “She’s my favorite teacher,” she added. “I knew there was a reason I woke up this morning,” Stevens said.

(Note: For reasons of privacy and safety, students are identified by first name only.)

Into the unknown: Exploring caves to uncover climate change clues

Into the unknown: Exploring caves to uncover climate change clues

By Christian Elliott and Brittany Edelmann, Dec. 8, 2021 –

Nearly 20 years ago, then Ph.D. student Gina Moseley walked into a bar in Bristol to meet fellow members of the University of Bristol Spelæological Society caving club. An older caver talked with her over drinks about some small caves in northeastern Greenland he’d always dreamed of organizing an expedition to explore. But, “logistically, it’s a nightmare to get out there,” said Moseley, now a professor in the Institute of Geology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The caver gave her all the papers he’d collected on the caves, and for years she kept them filed away.

Much later, a 1960 article by U.S. military geologists among the papers caught her eye. In their search for prime airfield locations, the geologists discovered caves with interesting geological features — crystalline calcite, stalagmites and flowstone deposits. To Moseley, that was proof Greenland’s caves contained something critical to scientists’ understanding of Earth’s ancient climate.

Moseley took her first steps into caving years earlier with her mom on a holiday trip when she was 12. She loved it. As she started grad school in Bristol, she discovered she could bring together her fascination with caves and her interest in studying paleoclimate to understand how future climate change — pushed by fossil fuel emissions of human activities — will affect the Earth.

Caves are normally “not altered or impacted by other processes” and “they’re so well-preserved over thousands of years,” Moseley said. That makes them a great location for climate research and creating records that can function as important analogs for future climate change.

The 2021 Comer Climate Conference on Oct. 4 – 5 brought together scientists from around the world, including Moseley and fellow paleoclimate researcher Kathleen Wendt.

Devil’s Hole

“Devils Hole was where it all began. That was the start of cave paleoclimate research,” Moseley said. Paleoclimate scientists first rappelled down into the deep, narrow cave in the Amargosa Desert in southwest Nevada in the late 1980s.

Using cores of the thick calcite crusts on the cave walls, which accumulated steadily over time, researchers reconstructed 500,000 years of climate history here with Uranium-thorium dating. Uranium-thorium dating provides insight into when a rock was formed– giving a date to the origin of the rock.

Devil’s Hole was also where Moseley and Wendt, who has her Ph.D. from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, got their start in cave paleoclimate science. In 2017, they returned to Devils Hole to extend the climate record further and validate the older results.

In their research Moseley and Wendt focused on oxygen isotopes, which provide temperature information about historic temperatures. During ice ages, a heavier isotope of oxygen forms at higher levels than during warm spells.

Wendt is getting ready to submit a new paper on the oxygen isotope record from Devils Hole. By showing the fluctuation in types of isotopes, heavier versus lighter forms of oxygen, this will give “clues into changes in temperature and a little bit about the source of precipitation over time,” Wendt said.

They found the water table dropped below modern levels during the last interglacial, 120,000 years ago, when Earth’s orbit brought the planet closer to the sun. That time period is an analog for southern Nevada’s hotter and drier future that will be accelerated beyond natural planetary fluctuations with human-forced extremes of climate change.

“Studying the paleoclimate tells us what nature is capable of,” Wendt said.

The Greenland caves

Paleoclimatologists who focus on caves often study speleothems — mineral deposits formed by dripping water. Protected within caves from the elements, these dripstones (stalagmites and stalactites) and flowstones grow as layers of calcium carbonate carried by rainwater add up over hundreds of thousands of years.

One of the flowstones Moseley found in the caves was specifically mentioned in the 1960 paper that inspired the expedition.

In Greenland, now a rainless polar desert, speleothems formed during a time when the island’s climate was warmer and wetter. By collecting and sampling speleothems, Moseley can reconstruct that ancient climate period as an analog for the future, when Greenland will once again be warmer and wetter.

Over millions of years due to orbital changes, Earth’s climate alternates between warm and cold periods — interglacials and ice ages called glacials. Paleoclimatologists rely on air bubbles in cores taken from ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic to study the composition of the ancient climate’s atmosphere, but there’s a problem — during warm periods, the ice sheet melts. That’s where the caves come in.

“So the caves offer the polar opposite of what the ice cores do because the ice cores tend to be cold-based climate records and the caves can give us warm-based climate records. So, we get to the two different parts together,” Moseley said.

That’s a common theme in paleoclimatology — no one climate proxy shows the big picture. To fully understand Earth’s ancient climate, scientists must piece together hundreds of pieces from data from sources across the world.

“If you have one cave in one location, that’s kind of interesting. But if you can relate that to other caves in other locations, ice cores in other locations, deep sea sediments in other locations and get the whole picture, that’s where it really gets interesting. That’s where we can answer the big questions and tackle the big issues,” Moseley said.

As the Arctic continues to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the world, understanding what warm and wet historic climate periods were like can help scientists know what to expert in the imminent future.

This leads to Moseley’s next adventure in 2023, where she will explore completely untouched caves in Northern Greenland. This was only made possible with an award from Rolex — which provides funding for such an endeavor.

Christian Elliott and Brittany Edelmann are science and environmental reporters at Medill. You can follow them on Twitter at @csbelliott. and @brittedelmann.

Enhanced weathering: When climate research takes unexpected turns

Enhanced weathering: When climate research takes unexpected turns

By Brittany Edelmann and Carly Menker, Dec. 5, 2021 –

Oxford University Ph.D. student Frankie Buckingham collected the 30, 1-meter-long cylindrical tubes of soil she needed for climate research in August 2018 on a British farm in North Oxfordshire. The farm had previously cultivated oats and barley in the soil. A variety of crushed rocks and minerals, such as basalt, olivine and volcanic ash, were added to the 30 cores and then positioned on the roof of Oxford’s Earth Sciences Department building. From October 2018 to June 2021, Buckingham analyzed the soils to watch for the effects of enhanced weathering on climate change impacts. But, what she found wasn’t quite what she expected.

Buckingham’s study focused on “enhanced weathering” as a carbon dioxide removal technique involving the application of crushed rock to agricultural soil.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a thermostat for climate change, holding in heat that drives global warming and driving changes in our climate as we know it. Carbon dioxide levels today are more than 35% higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years and rose 30% just since 1970. The last time the atmospheric CO2 levels matched today’s concentrations was over 3 million years ago, during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period. Temperatures then ranged from 2 degrees to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than during the pre-industrial era and sea level leveled off at 15 to 25 meters (50 to 80 feet) higher than today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Enhanced weathering is a process that aims to accelerate natural silicate weathering during which carbon dioxide reacts with rocks, a process that usually takes millions of years. Silicate weathering begins with the reaction between water, carbon dioxide and silicate rocks, which breaks down the rock. Eventually, the dissolved components are washed into the ocean where the carbon is stored for hundreds of thousands of years, either as mineral sediments or dissolved in the water, according to Buckingham. Enhanced weathering amps up this process by breaking down silicate rocks, such as basalt, into tiny pieces in a way of skipping slow weathering processes. The powder made from this is spread on agricultural land and the process can be further accelerated by fungi and roots in the soil.

Buckingham, on the roof of her research building, extracts water from the soil cores for further analysis of enhanced weathering processes. (Photo credit: Frankie Buckingham)

As a young child, Buckingham was already interested in climate change. She obtained a master’s degree in Earth Sciences from the University of Oxford, focusing on past periods of climate change and studying cave deposits.  During her Ph.D. program, she switched gears to try to answer the question of “how we might be able to prevent rising global temperatures?”

“The emergency of the climate crisis makes it a thrilling area to work in,” Buckingham said.

Buckingham started her presentation about her research at the 2021 Comer Climate Conference talking about The Paris Agreement, an international treaty pledging to limit greenhouse gas emissions so that the average global temperature rise is kept under 2 degrees Celsius and preferably under 1.5 degrees. Despite having already sparked low-carbon solutions and new markets, there are still many actions that need to be implemented, one of them being negative emission technologies to help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is where enhanced weathering comes in.

Buckingham’s results so far focus strictly on crushed basalt instead of crushed olivine, which most researchers have used. Why has research favored olivine? It has been shown to dissolve the quickest, absorbing CO2 in the process, Buckingham said. But further research indicated that olivine releases harmful chromium and nickel into the soils, something that takes a toll on the environment.

Assumptions made from previous research using simple experiments conducted in the laboratory – beaker experiments – gave a more optimistic view of the weathering process, Buckingham said. Her research differed because it was conducted in a way that was “as close to the field (as) you can get.”

Buckingham explained findings on why some mineral treatments dissolve quicker. She connected her field research back to beaker research with olivine, which revealed that olivine is one of the mineral that dissolves the quickest. Contrary to original expectations, Buckingham’s research showed crushed basalt actually dissolves three to four orders slower than previously expected.

Buckingham cuts soil core into 10-centimeter segments and measures for different physical properties. (Photo credit: Frankie Buckingham)

She elaborated on how many current enhanced weathering calculations assume that basalt can be applied to crops year after year – safely compared with olivine – and that it will dissolve. But, when looking at the crushed basalt in the soil cores, her research revealed that 99% of the crushed basalt does not dissolve.

“Within 50 years, you will have 25 centimeters (10 inches) of a basalt layer,” Buckingham said, which can affect agriculture and farmers who use the crushed basalt in their soil.

Previous thinking also expected the dissolution products (the components that separated from the rock) to travel from the soil into the oceans to help stem ocean acidification and increase the pH content within the ocean water. By consuming acidic ions during dissolution and by releasing important ions such as calcium and magnesium,  enhanced weathering sequesters CO2  and helps counteract ocean acidification.

But, Buckingham found that the “dissolution products were retained in the core.”

“The dissolution products can be sticky and can be chemically removed from the water,” Buckingham said, which prevents the dissolution products from getting into the oceans.

Negative emission technologies

Enhanced weathering is one type of negative emission technology to remove CO2 from the environment. And, as Buckingham’s research shows, more than one process is needed to have an impact on the pace at which the world generates CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. There are “a plethora of negative emissions technologies” to help combat climate change, according to Buckingham. We cannot rely on just one, she said.

Some other examples include planting new trees, biochar, ocean alkalinization and bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Mature trees don’t sequester carbon dioxide as quickly, so this is where young trees come in to help. Organic material is burned into biochar, which then locks up the carbon. Ocean alkalinization can help to draw down carbon dioxide by spreading alkaline crushed rocks directly into oceans, which ultimately will raise the alkalinity of the ocean water. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a process where biomass, such as crops or wood, that sequester carbon dioxide when grown, are burned for heat and electricity. The carbon dioxide emitted during burning is captured and transported for underground storage.

Where do we go from here?

Buckingham emphasized how her research shows that enhanced weathering may not draw down as much carbon dioxide as previously anticipated and can have “major impacts to soil chemistry.” But “that’s not a reason to lose hope,” she said. Her research was done in the U.K., as opposed to a warmer, more humid climate like the tropics. In tropical climates, more CO2 is drawn out faster due to the quicker breakdown of crushed rock and minerals.

Research is done to figure out answers to questions. The hope is that positive findings result, she said.

This research showed different results from previous assumptions. Jeff Servinghaus, professor of Geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, expressed gratitude to Buckingham at the conference.

“It’s very important work, because you know if we chase down dead ends, that’s just wasted time and money, right? So thank you for that,” he said

Geologist Richard Alley, emcee of the Comer Conference and a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University, said the more research that is done, the clearer it is that it’s easier to keep carbon dioxide out of the air than taking it out.

“If you can enrich your soil that’s good and if you can take a little carbon dioxide down that’s great, but don’t count on that to solve the problem,” Alley said.

“And although this might sound quite negative, it highlights the more realistic situation that we need to be aware of,” Buckingham said.

Brittany Edelmann is a registered nurse. She is health, environment and science reporter and a Comer Scholar at Medill. Follow her on twitter @brittedelmann

Carly Menker is a health, environment and science reporter for the Medill News Service and a Comer Scholar at Medill.  Follow her on Twitter @carlymenker.

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