School's 'partner' shares expertise on environment with students WEST COUNTY -- Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

September 23, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

As an environmental scientist, Joe Fabian faces carcinogenic, volatile, organic compounds, asbestos and other toxic substances without worry.

But Mr. Fabian's hands trembled slightly Monday when faced with a less familiar adversary: a classroom full of bored, sleepy sixth-graders.

Despite his nervousness, he began his lecture by translating Greek.

"Does anybody want to guess what 'eco' stands for?" he asks the children as he wrote "ecology" on the chalkboard.

A dark-haired girl in a green-plaid vest piped up: "The environment? Like the 'eco'-system?"

It's a good answer, Mr. Fabian says, but he gets more specific. "Eco" means house, and "ology" is the suffix for the study of. Therefore, ecology is the study of one's house, or living environment.

And that is just what Mr. Fabian's business is: helping property or business owners to get their houses into environmental order.

The small Columbia firm he works for, HTS Environmental Group, is starting its second year as Clarksville Middle School's school-business partner. The partnership began last September as one of 145 partnerships with the county's 54 public schools.

The sixth-graders who listened to Mr. Fabian were assigned by their reading teacher, Bill Seiler, to read "Smugglers' Flight," a short story about a little girl who suspects people she knows of smuggling endangered parrots.

Mr. Seiler requested help from HTS, which has 20 employees in its headquarters near Dobbin Center, as part of the "background of experience" used to introduce such stories. The children will spend several days learning about different kinds of smuggling and how each is harmful.

Mr. Fabian's task was to get the children to understand how smuggling animals into the United States can tamper with the delicate web of plants, prey and predators that make up local ecosystems.

House sparrows, he told them, were brought to the United States in the middle of the last century in the belief that they would eat crop pests. What they did was find other things to eat and competed with local species such as the eastern bluebird for food. Only recently has the bluebird made a comeback, through careful preservation, Mr. Fabian said.

By the time the class was coming to an end, even some of the quieter students in the class had begun responding to Mr. Fabian's questions.

"Eagles?" "Pelicans?" "Owls?" "Bluebirds?" The responses came from all corners of the classroom as the scientist sought names of threatened birds being reintroduced into the wild.

The answers were all wrong, but the students were awake and ready to hear that wild turkeys and peregrine falcons were being taken from state to state to replenish declining populations.

"It's just really a wonderful resource for us," said Annette Kuperman, gifted and talented resource teacher and coordinator for the school's only business partnership.

"Kids a lot of times learn about environmental issues but very seldom get to see anyone who has chosen to work in the environmental field," said Principal Frank Scrivener. Teachers may be able to pique students' interest in such things, but professionals can show the subject as it is practiced in the real world, he said.

And the partnership goes beyond the classroom. Mr. Fabian, the company's liaison to the school, had children get a feel for environmental work last year by providing protective suits for them to try on. Toward the end of the last school year, he led them in a stream study for some hands-on environmental work.

On a more individual level, he provided students working on a science project dealing with oil-eating bacteria with advice on how to present their findings.

Even beyond Mr. Fabian's specific area of expertise, he has been able to use business and regulatory contacts to help the school.

In June, he was able to round up experts for a 14-speaker "Enviro-thon." Students heard from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on global pollution and how it is seen from space, and from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission its local reservoirs.

Networking with other companies, such as Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc., Mr. Fabian was able to obtain materials for the school's entry in the Columbia Forum's Cardboard Boat Regatta. The boat, the Starship Enterprise, won the Pride of the Regatta Award for 1993.

On a more routine level, Mr. Fabian can also take satisfaction from other accomplishments of the half-dozen or so visits he expects to make to the school this year.

"It helped me understand how the animals can make a difference," 11-year-old Adrienne Loper said after Mr. Fabian's lecture Monday, "how they can destroy the environment and how they can help it."

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