December 19, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

How do you effect change? Give young people the information to open their eyes to the problem and the freedom to open their minds to the solutions. That’s the philosophy behind Water Pioneers, a program for Robinson Scholars.

The Robinson Scholars Program provides young students from 29 counties in eastern Kentucky with support, leadership development opportunities and ultimately, a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. Funded by coal royalties from UK’s Robinson Forest, the program accepts one first-generation, college-bound student from each county. Starting in the summer prior to ninth grade, the program provides extracurricular learning opportunities that are designed to open doors and career routes. Water Pioneers is such an opportunity, offered to Robinson Scholars during the summer preceding their sophomore year in high school. 

“Instead of standing there and presenting information to them, we present issues to them and let them try to disseminate what the answers are,” said Doug McLaren, UK forestry specialist and a Water Pioneers instructor. “That to me is one of the overriding issues so that we can develop leadership. Learn how to think. Learn how to question people in authority, not in an argumentative way, but simply to investigate every possible avenue.”

The avenues the scholars investigate in Water Pioneers are both diverse and related. 
“Our long term goals are obviously creating stewards of the environment, particularly related to water,” said Stephanie Jenkins, Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute program director, who helps coordinate the program’s curriculum. “We focus on overall natural resources because each discipline affects the other. If we get them thinking about these things early, then it impacts their lives forever; it’s part of who they become.”

During a week in June, the scholars converge on the Kentucky Leadership Center in Jabez for an intense course of study. McLaren teaches forestry and tree identification, UK entomology specialist Blake Newton introduces the students to insect life. Amanda Abnee Gumbert, UK agricultural programs water quality liaison, and Jenkins handle the water quality sections and Ashley Osborne, UK Cooperative Extension associate for environmental and natural resource issues, oversees chemical testing of water samples. 

The curriculum is not just based on science, however. Gumbert does Leopold activities with the group. Aldo Leopold was a conservationist who conceived of the idea of a “land ethic” in which the idea of community is expanded to include the land and its people. Gumbert uses writing and journaling to give the scholars a sense of place and a connection to the natural world of their eastern Kentucky communities.

Jenkins said each year’s class has a different dynamic. The first year they had a number of students who were interested in the arts, so the challenge was connecting with them through writing and nature art.

“What nature artists do is draw something in detail, showing a characteristic of a plant, for example,” she said. “So if you take a pinecone and draw it and really look at it, you’re really observing a piece of nature and are able to describe it and learn something from it. So we’ve tried to be creative in the way that we developed the curriculum to engage as many as we can.”

But it goes far beyond June’s five-day session in Jabez.

“During the weeklong program, we introduce them to little components of the concept of water; how to measure it; how to evaluate it; the value of water,” McLaren said. “As we add these on, it provides them more information, so that by Thursday night they are now mentally reviewing their county issues. By that point, they have used all this information to put together a project they can do in their own county.”

Between June and November, the scholars go back to the counties to work on their individual projects. In November, they returned to Hazard Community and Technical College to present their results to an invited audience of parents, local officials and UK faculty and staff.

Newton was impressed by the scope of the projects that were presented to the group.
“Some took home what they had learned and taught it to younger school children,” he said. “Others took it a step further and said, ‘I’m going to actually make something happen in my county.’”

He gave as an example Stephanie Fawbush from Laurel County who became very interested in the idea of recycled tires

“It was almost like investigative journalism in her county, following the trail of what happens to these tires and educating people along the way,” he said. “She found out some really interesting information. It taught her, and it taught us the complexity of the issues.”

Kenny Craft of Knott County focused on detergents. He approached local restaurants and the Knott County School Board, manned with information that showed them that by using phosphate-free soaps they could not only help the environment, but also save money. In the end, the school board decided that next year they would switch soaps throughout the entire system.

From the 29 presenters, four were chosen to present on the national stage. Kenny, Regina Rice from Rockcastle County, Miranda Lindsey of Harlan County and Tanner Stevens from Lawrence County traveled to Virginia Beach to present their projects recently at the 2007 North American Association for Environmental Education conference. Tanner, who is a sophomore at Lawrence County High School, was excited about all the things he learned at the conference.

“It actually surprised me, because I didn’t realize there were going to be so many people there,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many programs there were all around North America and everywhere. You don’t realize how many people there are out there who really do care.”

Tanner collaborated with Dillon Bryant, a Robinson Scholar from Carter County, and Zachary Niece from Elliott County on a project which involved teaching visitors to Carter Caves water conservation methods and how to test their water.

“We showed them what everything meant, so that way they were more knowledgeable,” he said. “We had people tell us that they were going to go and tell people about it.”

The trip to Virginia Beach was an eye-opener for the four young scholars outside of the conference setting, as well. It was a new and wider world the students experienced. Tanner and two of his companions had never seen the ocean before. Jenkins said that Miranda was astounded at how large the Atlantic was, expecting to be able to see land on the other side.

“You know, we take that for granted,” Jenkins said. “We try to give them experiences, outside of what we’re there to do. It’s neat how it opened our eyes, because we can provide them with multiple experiences.”

“I knew that Virginia Beach, of course, is on the ocean,” Tanner said, “but I didn’t think about all the different creatures that people in natural resources there have to deal with.”

Due to the Robinson Scholars Program with its programs such as Water Pioneers, new ideas are blossoming and new doors are opening for a bright and promising future for young people like Tanner. He is now considering a career in natural resources, possibly as a marine biologist.

“I just love it because it’s such an opportunity for students who don’t have the opportunity to go to college,” he said. “There’s just so much that you learn. I love it, that’s all I can say about it.”


Doug McLaren, 859-257-2703, Blake Newton, 859-257-7453, Stephanie Jenkins 859-257-1299