Creating a Climate of Possibility

""I recently watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson, an English author and advisor on education, creativity, and innovation. In it, he stressed the importance of creating a “climate of possibility” for students.

The minute he used that phrase, images of our National Environmental Summit for High School Students popped into my head. This weeklong experience, which will be held this year July 9–13, does just that. It creates a climate of possibility for high school students who come from all over the country to Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., to work on innovative solutions to environmental challenges.

The unusual thing about this summit is that it’s not just for students who want to go into the environmental field. This is for students who love theater and music, history and economics, writing and philosophy, as well as those who are at home with the sciences. The idea is to help them use their talents and interests to make a difference in the world.

We call the summit “Redesigning Our Future.” That’s pretty ambitious, but the students are up for the challenge. They thrive in an environment that stretches them to think in new ways.

The mentors who create a climate that encourages such lofty goals are crucial, of course. We are fortunate that engineers and scientists from the prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado join our Catawba professors and Center for the Environment staff each year to both tap the students’ imaginations and ground them in sound practices.

Summit leaders employ a solutions-based approach to environmental challenges. They stress the importance of collaboration, whole-systems thinking, and effective communication skills.

We know—and the students know by the time they leave the summit—that having a great idea isn’t enough. You’ve got to be able to bring others on board to get the concept from the drawing board to the real world. One segment of the summit helps the students learn how to plan, communicate, and mobilize an initiative so they can return to their schools armed with the skills they need to implement a plan.

We have purposely targeted high-school-age students because we want to catch them at an early age. So many people don’t realize they can make a difference or they don’t discover it until later in life. But they can. They can change the path of others. That’s the message we offer these students.

I get tremendous satisfaction watching them discover new ideas and develop new skills. They light off into our Stanback Ecological Preserve to examine spider webs and find out that the fibers can be stronger than steel. When man produces similar fibers, it generally requires us to use high temperatures and high pressures, and the production may result in undesirable waste products. But the spider can produce its fiber without increased temperature or pressure and without pollutants as byproducts.

That’s an “aha” moment for these students. Discovering that cockleburs served as the original inspiration for Velcro is another one. Okay, they say, maybe we need to look to nature for solutions to environmental problems.

Actually, there are lots of “aha” moments. Some emerge from the group that learns about methods economists use to study policies that influence the environment. Others come from a philosophy class that focuses on different ways to conceive of nature and the radically different consequences that emerge from those different approaches.

We also introduce them to a notable individual who decided at a young age that he wanted to make a difference in the world. This year Chad Pregracke, who was recently nominated as a CNN Hero, will speak about his passion for cleaning up the Mississippi and other rivers. He decided to do this at age 17, the same age as many of the students. And now he runs a nonprofit organization dedicated to river cleanup with an annual operating budget of $1.6 million.

It’s inspiring to see what can happen when you create a climate of possibility. The enthusiasm is palpable. Innovative ideas shoot around the room with laser speed and intensity. It gives you a really good feeling about the future of the world.

Dr. John Wear is executive director of the Center for the Environment and associate professor of biology and environmental science at Catawba College in Salisbury. For more on the National Environmental Summit for High School Students, visit

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