As a kid, I treasured a scrap of thin silvery material about four inches square, the souvenir of a school presentation by a visitor from NASA. He told us about the launch of a satellite called Echo, …
As a kid, I treasured a scrap of thin silvery material about four inches square, the souvenir of a school presentation by a visitor from NASA. He told us about the launch of a satellite called Echo, a 100-foot wide balloon made of this remarkably strong, flexible, reflective metalized plastic that could withstand extremes of heat and cold. Echo was going to make it possible to bounce radio and television signals to receivers around the globe. I can’t have been more than 6 years old, and I had no idea of the sophisticated science that went into the design and launch of the two Echo satellites in 1960 and 1964. I just knew I was holding a piece of something momentous, and somehow, that connection made me feel I was part of it. NASA was forever fixed in my consciousness as a source of wonder.
So, I was a bit over the moon when Don Hamilton, natural resources chief for the National Park Service (NPS) on the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, invited me to be part of a team of five area residents applying to participate in the Earth to Sky Academy, a special week-long course at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Originally a partnership between NASA, the NPS and other agencies designed to help NPS interpreters talk to park visitors about climate change, Earth to Sky was expanding to include a broader range of informal educators who engage about climate, sustainability and the environment in a variety of settings in their communities. The Earth to Sky Academy would help us access NASA’s state-of-the-art climate research and hone our communications skills. In return, we made a commitment to take part in an ongoing national community of practice focused on climate change and to continue to develop our knowledge, share resources, and support each other’s work. Most importantly, we would organize regional communities of practice back home to share what we had learned and raise awareness of local impacts.
And so, in October 2019, I was in Greenbelt meeting my new colleagues. Our Upper Delaware River contingent joined groups based in Alaska, Idaho and Oklahoma, each team featuring an exceptional range of academic and professional expertise and serving a unique landscape and population. Over the next five days, we were immersed in the science of climate change and how to communicate about it. The science—“what we know and how we know it”—was framed in an understanding of Earth as a system with interconnecting components of air, land, water, ice and life, and based upon evidence such as global temperature data and changing patterns of sea ice, drought, wildfires and other phenomena.
Systems thinking carried over to the communications coursework, which focused on understanding different learning styles and points of view, guiding respectful discussions and using local climate data and personal observations to connect the science with lived experiences. I came away with new insights about the human equation: how our interactions and decision-making about climate change are based in complex patterns, histories, affinities and insecurities, and how we can work to make the science more accessible and less intimidating.
Back home, we plunged into exploring topics and identifying expert speakers for our own Earth to Sky Regional conference. We recruited team leaders from our four Upper Delaware River Watershed counties—Delaware and Sullivan in New York and Pike and Wayne in Pennsylvania—and helped them build their own teams. The pandemic tested our resourcefulness, forcing us to adapt what we had planned as a live three-day event to an online series convened over a 10-week period, which concluded in early June. There’s much more to come. Our county-based teams are working on their own plans for outreach in their communities, which will reflect their diverse skills and perspectives and their shared passion for our region.
In the midst of this hopeful work, I recall the awe I felt as a child searching the night sky for a glimpse of the orbiting Echo. Now I am awed by the generosity of the scientists and communicators who shared their work with us at NASA Goddard and participated in our regional conference. They welcomed us to a supportive community dedicated to an ongoing, inclusive conversation about climate change. It’s up to us now to help that conversation flourish in our Upper Delaware home.