The inaugural Taconic Mountain Student Water Conference was held at Bennington College on May 19th and 20th 2017. The conference was assembled with the goal of introducing advanced high school students and educators from our region to the problems and opportunities that define our water resources.
The conference was a joint effort co-convened by David Bond (Bennington College) and Ken Facin (Hoosick Falls Central School District) and hosted by the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. The theme for the inaugural conference focused on PFOA contamination of water supplies.
Over the course of the weekend, students heard from school leaders about how they reacted to the crisis, how scientists seek answers, how local elected officials have responded, and how journalists reported on the crisis. After lunch on the first day, students received hands-on experience taking water samples, and then attended their choice of breakout sessions.
The conference brought together students from four states, including a group that traveled from Los Angeles, California from Academia Avance.
For HFCS freshman Jessica Weingold, the water sampling was her favorite part of the day. “I liked going down to the stream and sampling the water. Before the conference, I thought all water was the same, but that’s not true.” She continued “Now I know there’s different minerals in every body of water, and also different organisms that live in it.” Jessica additionally learned about categories of water, saying” Now I know the difference between surface waters such as a pond or river, and how they are affected. I also have a better understanding of ground water, and why if one house has it (PFOA) their neighbor doesn’t. It all makes more sense now.”
Another Hoosick Falls freshman, Haley Mulready, found the lecture from the journalists to be inspiring. She said, “After hearing the journalists and how they put so much into learning about PFOA, I appreciate that.” She continued, “It was interesting to hear the way they take what they’ve learned about it and their process for letting all of us know more.” Haley was inspired by one of the journalists, Mariah Blake. Haley explained, “I am impressed by how much she’s traveled and how many people she’s talked to. It’s empowering to see another woman doing a lot of work and sharing her findings on this situation we’ve been going through.”
The conference could not have happened without the Center for Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College. Susan Sgorbati, Director of CAPA, said, “As Director of The Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College, I am so pleased that we were able to host the Taconic Water Conference on May 19th and 20th. CAPA is dedicated to educating students, which includes giving them skills for public action about the most urgent problems in our contemporary world. PFOA in our region’s water supply is one of those challenges.”
Kenneth Facin, Superintendent of Hoosick Falls CSD, said, “This was a really good example of a collaboration between a public high school and private college. The collaboration created an amazing learning experience at many levels for students, adults, and communities.”
Ms. Sgorbati added, “The importance of bringing high school students into this conversation is a priority, as they are the ones that will help solve these problems in the future. They also have a voice in bringing this issue to the public’s attention. At CAPA, we are proud to have David Bond, our Associate Director, who has led this initiative and inspired all of us to do our best work in this area. He has collaborated with local, regional and national partners to bring the most up to date research to the public, and to help citizens by testing wells while collaborating with schools and state agencies. We are very fortunate to have him working in CAPA.”
Superintendent Facin said, “This area has been impacted by a chemical that is in our water and blood, and to see students from four states engaged in lab practices, lectures, and learning about this chemical was truly inspirational and provided great hope for the future.”
Mary McManus, a Biology and Environmental Science teacher at Tamarac High School (Brunswick Central School District) brought a group of her students to the conference. She said, “We were so appreciative to be included in the conference. It was wonderful exposure for my students and a fabulous opportunity to interact with other students and community representatives. We all had an excellent experience!” Mary added, “Kids are concerned that governmental response to water issues is too slow. They feel safe water in this first world, developed nation should be guaranteed.”
Some of Mary’s students reside in a more rural area, and they were especially interested in this conference. “Many of my students live on farms and worry about their wells and their livestock.” Her students benefited greatly from this conference. Describing the results, she said, “They were astonished at how pervasive PFOA is and many have stopped eating microwave popcorn. They definitely see the importance of education, communication, community involvement and the need for action to address the issue of toxins in the environment.
Jazmin Valadez-Aceves, a student from Academia Avance, said, “The Water Conference opened my eyes up to how much PFOA is affecting these communities in the east coast. I found myself interested and worried about the issue. The contamination is getting out of hand, and I want to make sure I am updated on any changes or discoveries that will aid these towns.” Students from Avance were also one of the presenters Jazmin observed, “Avance’s presentation helped me learn more about issues that are much bigger than the ones we often see.”
Melissa Najera, another Avance student, said, “I am glad that I was able to attend the water conference at Bennington College because I learned that PFOA is a human-made chemical and it is used to create certain materials, but it’s not found in the products itself.”
Students from all of the schools also made meaningful connections to one another. Melissa said, “I was able to converse with a girl at the conference, and she told me that she had lost an uncle to PFOA. That impacted me because many families are going through the same process and there still hasn’t been any progress done.” She added, “The trip has made realize that the things we complain about aren’t important and that high school drama just stays in high school. It made me value water and my bed more because it’s hard to live without clean water. The trip changed my perspective on life.”
Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Facin said, “Dr. Bond and CAPA were amazing hosts for this conference and provided the kind of collegiate experience that resulted in great aspirations from the attendees to work hard in college and make a difference in bettering the world. We truly are indebted to Bennington College for their leadership on many levels, and Dr. Bond has been a pleasure to work with. CAPA’s dedication made this an excellent event.”