While many West Virginia University students are wrapping up fall semester research projects, some are helping local high school students develop their own.

These students are part of the WVU chapter of EnvironMentors.

EnvironMentors is a national environment-based mentoring program developed by the National Council for Science and Environment. The program provides high school students, from all cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, the opportunity to work with researchers and professionals to develop scientifically rigorous research projects. The program also promotes future studies and careers in environmental science fields.

WVU was selected in May 2011 as one of 13 university chapters distributed across the U.S.

“For the high school students, EnvironMentors provides opportunities for them to gain increased understanding of complex local and global environmental issues through real-world hands-on science in the field with their mentor,” said Todd Petty, director of the program and professor of wildlife and fisheries resources in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “The program also helps them to build self-confidence, self-direction, and in many cases, a lifelong friendship as a result of working in a mentoring relationship with a supportive and knowledgeable adult.”

Coordinating the WVU chapter this year are Jennie Franks, a Peace Corps Masters International wildlife and fisheries resources graduate student, and Catherine Artis, a wildlife and fisheries resources graduate student.

During the program’s pilot year at WVU, Franks and Artis both served as mentors and are excited to be co-coordinators this year.

“It’s challenging and sometimes stressful to balance the coordinator responsibilities with those of our classes and research, but there is certainly a sense of accomplishment when all is said and done,” Franks said. “It’s rewarding to see the excitement surrounding the program from the mentors and mentees.”

They stepped into their new roles with a number of goals for year two including increase recruitment efforts, increase the number of high school participants, and increase the diversity of the mentors’ majors.

“We took a personal approach to recruiting high school students,” Artis said. “We visited every biology class at Morgantown High School and the students seemed really excited.”

The pair also recruited a diverse class of mentors with students from the Davis College, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, as well as two professionals from Friends of Deckers Creek.

“We’re required to maintain at least a one-to-one ratio of mentors to mentees,” Franks said. “With 22 mentors invested, the program was able to accept 20 interested students from Morgantown High School and Trinity Christian Academy.”

This year marks the return of six mentors and two mentees – two of whom were paired together last year.

Jessica Odenheimer, an agronomy graduate student from Ashburn, Va., and Emma Mathers, a junior at Morgantown High School, are excited to be working together again.

“Jessica has been a great mentor, not only for the program but with school and life in general,” Mathers said. “We’ve become friends.”

Odenheimer agrees, saying she believes she was meant to be paired with Mathers.

“Emma actually turned her application in late last year,” Odenheimer said. “At the kick-off event, her mom sat next to me and, as we were talking, I found out she is also from Ashburn. When Emma and I were paired together I figured it was meant to be.”

Last year, Mathers explored the effect of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants on the quality of downwind rainwater. She was one of three students to represent the chapter in Washington, D.C., at the national EnvironMentors fair.

Mathers walked away with a $500 scholarship and, this year, has her eyes set on the top reward – a $10,000 scholarship.

“The goal was to make it to nationals last year,” she said. “We met and surpassed it, so it was time to set a new one.”

That scholarship, along with the unique research experience she’s gaining, will certainly help Mathers when it comes to applying for colleges. As of right now, she’d like to attend Columbia University, Brown University or Stanford University and pursue a degree in biomedical or environmental engineering.

“EnvironMentors is an incredible program that provides great research experience and the opportunity to set up and manage a research project,” she said. “It also gives you the opportunity to present your findings which helps improve your communications skills.”

The high school students are not the only ones who benefit by participating in the program.

“As someone who fell in love with environmental sciences in high school and once considered being a teacher, this is a great way for me to explore a passion, help a future scientist develop hers, and meet new people along the way,” Odenheimer said.

The students and their mentors will spend the next seven months conducting their research projects, participating in hands-on workshops designed to enhance their understanding of the environmental research, and preparing to present their findings at the local fair in April 2013.

Winners of the WVU fair will present again in May at the national fair in Washington, D.C.

For more information about EnvironMentors, please contact Petty at jtpetty@mail.wvu.edu. Information is also available on the chapter’s website and Facebook page.



CONTACT: Todd Petty, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design
304.293.2278, Todd.Petty@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.