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Astronaut Jemison spreads message of hope at local event

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, a physicist originally from Alabama, tried to inspire students at Roosevelt High School last week during a World Environment Day speech. In 1994, she left NASA to form a science literacy program called The Earth We Share.Last Wednesday morning, Ben Kitoko had no idea what “biodiversity” meant. He didn’t have any special interest in science, and liked the environment but didn’t know exactly why.

Five hours later, the Roosevelt High School freshman was able to explain how he might create a program to protect Portland’s urban green spaces and teach people to “do the right thing.”

“We’re all connected; not just with humans but with plants and animals and everything we live in,” says Kitoko, one of 82 Portland Public Schools students who participated in Wednesday’s World Environment Day event at Roosevelt.

As the North American host city for World Environment Day, the city of Portland held a slate of events designed to raise awareness and spur political action.

This year’s theme was reducing food waste and loss. The United Nations Environment Programme released a report on global food waste at City Hall, and a panel of local experts on food sustainability discussed the implications.

The first installment of the report looks at how the world can feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that advances economic development and reduces pressure on the environment. The second part looks at how and why about 24 percent of all calories produced for human consumption are lost or wasted.

To view the reports, visit

Also last Wednesday, in true Portland style, a giant salmon led a downtown rally, and the Rose Festival held a costume parade called “Procession of the Species.”

The real action, however, happened across the city at North Portland’s Roosevelt High School, where a contingent of students gathered to meet a piece of living history.

Mae Jemison, a physicist and astronaut originally from Alabama, became the first black woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

In 1994, she left NASA to form a science literacy program for kids called “The Earth We Share.”

Her target age group is 12 to 16, a time when students start losing interest in science, she says. Instead, she tried to captivate, engage and inspire the students at Roosevelt.

“Did you know we’re on a spaceship now?” she asked the students in the auditorium, who’d also come from Grant, Lincoln and Jefferson high schools, George Middle School and Peninsula K-8.

“All the resources we have right now are the resources we’re going to have.” When she was in space, Jemison told the students, she looked down at Earth and saw a “shimmering light.”

“When people say ‘Save the earth,’ they’re mistaken,” she said. “The earth will be here. ... The problem is, it may not develop an atmosphere that can support our life.”

Making a big difference

With a larger-than-life persona and penchant for hands-on learning, Jemison put the students to work in a workshop called “Food, Water and the Environment: What’s the Connection?”

It was underwritten by the Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp.’s “Making Science Make Sense” initiative to advance science literacy in schools across the United States.

Students were split into groups and assigned problems, which they had about two hours to solve. At the end of the day, they gathered back in the auditorium to present their solutions to the audience.

One group had to come up with a plan to make PPS the greenest school system in the country. Students drew a model that included solar panels, green roofs, wind turbines, gardens, compost and recycling areas, water storage systems, eco-friendly paint, bamboo floors and renewable materials.

They said the schools should reduce move toward iPads and other technology to reduce reliance on paper, something they’re already doing at Roosevelt thanks to a federal grant.

Finally, the students said green schools would have plants growing in each classroom, and environmental science would be integrated into most subjects.

Other groups tackled green jobs in Portland and how to make Portland parks even greener and the city even energy smarter.

Students found the work challenging, if not overwhelming. “You think that everybody thinks the same on one topic, but really there’s so much more to everybody’s ideas,” says Abby Pasion, Roosevelt’s junior class president. “There are different ways to go about saving the Earth.”

Like most of the students, Pasion came to see Jemison, and left starry-eyed — especially after hearing about Jemison’s latest venture, a program called 100-Year Starship.

The initiative aims to explore and create the technologies to send humans to another star system in the next 100 years. It may sound far-fetched, but it received seed money in 2011 from the U.S. government’s high-tech arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Anna Robertson, a sophomore at Jefferson who is on her school’s sustainability team, also was moved by Jemison and the workshop’s lessons.

“It impressed me and inspired me to do something big,” Robertson said. “It’s been a dream to make a big difference in the world.”

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