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ORNL scientists mark EE Week with climate talks to local students

ORNL ecosystem scientist Colleen Iversen talked to fourth-grade students at Coulter Grove Intermediate School in Maryville on Friday, April 23, as part of National Environmental Education Week. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Esther Parish is one of eight scientists from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory talking to students in nine schools across East Tennessee as part of National Environmental Education Week, or EE Week.

On April 13, she spoke to Cathy Kimball’s fifth grade class at Lenoir City Middle School. The discussion covered renewable energy resources, science career paths and how climate change may affect East Tennessee.

“I think it is important to reach out to young people about environmental science because the choices that our society makes regarding renewable energy resource development and climate change mitigation will have long-term effects on their environment, health and future quality of life,” said Parish of ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division who specializes in geography and landscape ecology.

In explaining her work at the lab, which she described as a “city of scientists and engineers looking for better types of energy,” Parish talked to the students about the impacts of climate change in their own communities.

“As our climate changes, we will see different types of trees begin to grow in the Smokies, as well as more nuisance pests and bugs, such as ticks,” she said. “Agriculture will be affected; farmers may need to change what types of crops they can grow.”

More frequent local flooding, as well as an increase in the number of people with allergies and asthma, she said, also demonstrate how changing climate conditions affect East Tennessee.

Parish also discussed how scientists use supercomputers – such as Summit, the nation’s most powerful supercomputer located at ORNL – to better understand how a variety of systems on Earth interact.

She polled the class on what they knew about sources of energy; solar panels and hydropower were the first two answers with gasoline landing third. Then she explained how energy sources have unique tradeoffs: each type has benefits and impacts to consider.

Parish said her own interest in environmental education began in her middle school years when she became concerned about oil tanker spills that were making headlines.

Read more about Parish’s research and her commitment to educational outreach.

Along with Parish, ORNL scientists Debjani Singh, Liz Agee, Shelaine Curd, Spencer Washburn, Colleen Iversen, Keith Kline and Matthew Langholtz are participating in classroom events through April 30. The national event is organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation, or NEEF, which celebrates environmental education.

Congressionally chartered to complement the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NEEF is a nonpartisan organization working to make the environment more accessible, relatable, relevant and connected to people’s daily lives. NEEF partners with educators, students, government agencies, businesses, communities and nonprofit organizations to inspire environmental learning and encourage stewardship of the world’s natural resources.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit