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Kent State University at Stark Professor Coordinates Hoover Initiative on the Environment

Posted June 25, 2012

Kent State Stark field biologist and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Penny Bernstein, Ph.D., is coordinating an environmental consortium dedicated to saving Stark County’s watersheds.

Puzzles intrigue Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Penny Bernstein, Ph.D. Whether they are presented in a colorful box, in the natural world or as part of her work, her first inclination is to look carefully for patterns that lead to a solution.

A field biologist at Kent State University at Stark, Bernstein was asked to play a key role in what has evolved into an innovative consortium dedicated to saving Stark County’s watersheds. But, before the Herbert W. Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media could move forward to achieve its purposes, someone needed to put the pieces in the right place.

“When I learned about the idea for the Hoover Initiative more than four years ago, I could see what it was – a framework with great potential to spur environmental change, but with lots of ideas, goals and expectations that had to be placed in the proper order,” she says.

Initially, Bernstein admits she wasn’t sure who would embrace the concept of environmental media. However, she quickly discovered that many students were already using media to document ecology issues. They just didn’t know what to do with their photos and videos. The Hoover Initiative – funded by a grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation – would become an outlet for them, as well as an opportunity to voice their concerns.

She notes, “With the rise of environmental activism among students again, I knew this project would fill a need for area students and help them work in very tangible ways toward a common goal – which is to preserve and protect our watersheds.”

When Bernstein accepted the position as coordinator of the Hoover Initiative, one of her biggest expectations – and subsequent challenges – was to build a partnership between many groups that, on the surface, seemed disparate. Yet, the idea of an interdisciplinary effort excited her, and since 2008, she has been the driving catalyst behind this environmental consortium, forging bonds between individuals, businesses, corporations, nonprofits, government departments, county agencies, K-12 schools and groups of faculty members and students at Stark County’s five colleges and universities. Currently, 14 organizations are involved, with more joining every year.

Thanks to funding from the Western Reserve Conservation and Resource Development Council, the Hoover Initiative now has two environmental stewardship liaisons that connect faculty, students and community partners. Bernstein says they play an important part in keeping everyone connected and overseeing smaller projects that students and partners work on together.

Tina Biasella, director of external affairs at Kent State Stark, describes Bernstein as a person of petite stature who makes big waves. As a result of her efforts to bring people together, every college and university in Stark County is collaborating to address local issues related to the environment.

“Efforts to improve the environment in general and our watersheds in particular are more widespread than we ever dreamed possible,” Biasella says. “However, few recognize all that Dr. Bernstein has done. She is so humble. Her work speaks for itself and demonstrates our strong commitment to making the community a better place to live, work and play.”

A number of opportunities are underway for the Hoover Initiative, including a new grant for water sampling in select locations throughout Stark County. As part of this project, Bernstein’s vision is to create a database of statistics and content (images, videos, papers, etc.) that students across the consortium can update regularly. Water sampling began in spring 2012.

Ironically, Bernstein says the program’s long-term sustainability may be the Hoover Initiative’s biggest challenge going forward. The program appeals to students and is making major strides in meeting its objectives, but several hurdles remain.

“Students come to college expecting to be challenged, but they also want to leave with a degree,” Bernstein says. “With every project the Hoover Initiative starts, we must ask the question, ‘How will this fit into students’ graduation requirements?’ To keep this wonderful effort alive, we must continue to find ways to make it work within the academic system.”

That’s another puzzle Bernstein is currently tackling. Students throughout Stark County who are passionate about clean water are cheering her on.

With the support of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, Bernstein and an impassioned team of faculty members and students from Kent State Stark, Malone University, Walsh University, Stark State College and University of Mount Union have made significant strides in raising awareness about threats to Stark County’s watersheds while helping to protect and improve their condition.

Learn more about the Herbert W. Hoover Initiative in Environmental Media at OurWaterWebs.org.