Seniors Present Independent Theses at First Annual Eco Fellows’ Symposium

Members of the first cohort of the Eco Fellows, a new environmental leadership program at Spence, presented their independent theses at the inaugural Eco Fellows’ Symposium, the culminating experience of the rigorous three-year ecology elective.

Seniors presenters Lyla C. and Sophie G. pursued vastly different topics in environmental studies––clean energy and community gardens, respectively—with distinct approaches to research. Both presentations, however, evidenced their deep understanding of advocacy for environmental justice issues, a key part of the Eco Fellows curriculum. 

Designed by faculty advisor Dr. Brandon Kraft, the Eco Fellows program gives students a chance to dive even deeper within an already strong Upper School science curriculum beginning in their sophomore year. In the first two years of the course, Eco Fellows build skills to understand global environmental governance, conduct case studies about sustainability at home and abroad, and explore different aspects of environmental justice through an interdisciplinary lens. In their final year, students “engage in topics of sustainability that interest them,” shared Dr. Kraft. This year, senior Eco Fellows also interviewed professionals in their chosen field during a series of assemblies leading up to their thesis presentations, thus sharing their learning with the entire Upper School community. 

Lyla’s scholarly research, “Investigating the Decarbonization Pathways of Highly-Polluting Peaker Plants in New York State,” explored New York State electricity data from 2014-2019 with the goal of identifying ways to phase out the usage of peaker plants, power sources used when energy demand is peaking. According to Lyla, this area of study is particularly important because peaker plants release high levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air, a process which has major environmental and health implications. 

By running a model with seven variables on state electricity usage, Lyla found that using more renewable energy sources correlates with a lower utilization of peaker plants. “These results indicate that increasing a state’s renewable energy capacity has significant repercussions for New York’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, the health of the millions of people living within a three-mile radius of a peaker plant in New York and the disproportionate environmental justice burdens that low-income and minority communities face due to the placement of these plants,” she emphasized. “Renewable generation cannot be the only method to retiring peaker plants,” Lyla added, noting that this work will “require multi-tiered solutions” that take into account region-level and economic data. 

Sophie’s thesis project, “Outreach and Reflection: An Exploration of Self and Community Through Urban Gardens,” planted the seeds for her own grassroots nonprofit organization, Grow the Community. The organization’s mission, Sophie said, is to “increase the carrying capacity of community gardens through providing funds” to the gardens, allowing them to produce more fresh fruits and vegetables for their surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are low income communities of color. 

This past winter, while community gardens were closed for the season, Sophie focused on creating a website for her organization and filing with the IRS for 501(c)(3) status, which is the official tax-exempt designation for a nonprofit organization. In the spring, Sophie worked to identify the biggest areas of need in local urban gardens by traveling across the city to different communities and interviewing garden volunteers. She’s currently working with the La Perla garden in Harlem to plan a fundraiser for a new water pump. 

“Now that I have the structure of my organization, I hope to continue this endeavor in college, and create a large network of community gardens now that I’m better equipped to help,” said Sophie.  

Congratulations to Lyla and Sophie on a job well done!