Atlanta Green Heart STEM Challenge Finalists Attend the Idea Incubator

The week of June 17, 2024, seven students gathered at the Fernbank Science Center in Decatur, Georgia to attend the Green Heart STEM Challenge Idea Incubator. These students are finalists from the Green Heart STEM Challenge for Environmental Justice– a program created by the Captain Planet Foundation to support young people as they innovate and develop place-based solutions to the biggest challenges posed by climate change and environmental injustice.

This year’s challenge encouraged young people from Metro Atlanta to address water justice issues in their communities. Each team learned about water justice issues, then identified a problem in their community and developed a solution which they ultimately presented to a panel of judges at the Green Heart STEM Challenge Final Event in May 2024. 

Finalists’ teams were invited to the Idea Incubator, hosted by Captain Planet Foundation and Fernbank Science Center, to work on their action plans and improve the feasibility of their solutions. Youth spent the week speaking with subject matter experts, practicing speaking to stakeholders, gathering valuable data, and designing their plan for implementation. 

The Idea Incubator was led by Captain Planet Foundation’s Courtney Kimmel. “It’s great to be able to spend so much dedicated time focusing on these projects and really refining the ideas and pitches,” shares Courtney, “CPF is rare in the way we spend this much time working through solutions with young people in this way.”

The students had the opportunity to speak with Jess Sterling, a freshwater ecologist from Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate, advocate and secure the protection and stewardship of the Chattahoochee River. Each student’s project focused on a local creek, which are all fed by the Chattahoochee River. Jess heard from the students about which issues they planned to address, and helped them to identify accurate data, how to understand water infrastructure, and how to make sense of the water injustices they are seeing in their local communities. 

Participants were also visited by Doll Avant, Captain Planet Foundation Board Member and Chief Executive Officer of Aquagenuity, who is working to democratize water quality data collection by placing power in the hands of citizens and building what Google has called, “The world’s largest water database.” Doll taught the students how to identify the story within their solutions and how to communicate that effectively to stakeholders. Each student found that, although they had great passion and ideas, they needed to know how to talk about their solution in order to make others want to contribute. 

Bonita Johnson, Senior Physical Scientist and Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Water Division, spoke to the students about environmental justice, equitability and inclusivity. She discussed the creation of national policies and helped students understand how their solutions contribute to environmental justice efforts that have developed over decades.

Students also got an opportunity to test water quality and stream health of the South Fork Peachtree Creek in Decatur. As the students waded through the water’s stream, they were led by South Fork Conservancy Founding Executive Director, Sally Sears. Sally helped them to identify indicators of erosion and gave them an opportunity to interact with an impaired water source in their community. 

On the final day of the Idea Incubator, students pitched their revised solutions to Latoya Henry, Chief Operating Officer of Captain Planet Foundation. Each group demonstrated their understanding of the root cause of the issue they were addressing, presented credible research to support their knowledge, and identified a solution that was feasible and implementable. 

Throughout the Green Heart STEM Challenge for Environmental Justice, these students transformed their ideas into real, implementable solutions. With the guidance of subject matter experts and the tools provided by their educators and Captain Planet Foundation, we can see how young people have the creativity, drive, and capacity to solve problems in their communities and beyond. 

The Green Heart STEM Challenge for Environmental Justice is made possible by Susan L. Klein, Accenture, and Aquagenuity