Rachel Carson inspires S. Allegheny 6th-graders

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 5:17 a.m.

A teacher at South Allegheny Elementary School hopes her 129 sixth-grade science students get encouragement from a book written 50 years ago.

“She was a real strong environmental activist,” Jenna Whitney said about Rachel Carson, a Springdale native who wrote “Silent Spring.”

On Sept. 27, 1962, Carson's indictment of “man's assaults upon the environment (with) lethal materials,” was released by Houghton Mifflin.

“Only (now) has one species, man, acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world,” Carson wrote.

“What she tried to teach the world (is) how (pesticides) could be used in a more intelligent way,” said David Mintz, senior education specialist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

“It took Rachel Carson years to convince people that this was happening,” education specialist Beth Mulvihill said.

Sixth-graders at the school read excerpts from the book and will participate in monthly projects. First in September was the collection of 2,101 plastic shopping bags.

“We just brought them in from our own houses,” sixth-grader Hayden Bayura said.

“We dropped them off at the Giant Eagle in Oak Park Mall,” Whitney said. “We filled both bins.”

This month's project is collecting pop can tabs for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Carson was born in 1907, graduated in 1929 from Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University, studied at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

She worked for 15 years with the federal government, rising to the role of editor-in-chief of Fish and Wildlife Service publications.

Between 1941 and her death in 1964, Carson authored four books, three dealing with the sea. A 1956 Carson article was adapted in 1965 into the book “The Sense of Wonder.” According to a Carson memorial website, it detailed her philosophy that adults need to nurture a child's inborn sense of wonder about the natural world.

Last December Mintz and Mulvihill came to nurture the wonder of South Allegheny seventh-graders. As was the case then, they visited with a variety of creatures, including an American kestrel falcon, a common musk or stinkpot turtle and a corn snake.

Mintz and Mulvihill use what is called a HIPPO scale to explain factors affecting biodiversity: H for habitat loss, I for invasive species, one P for pollution, another for population and O for overconsumption.

Mulvihill showed a picture of the bog turtle, endangered in part because of the impact of civilization on its environment — and also because people take them home as pets.

As sixth-grade teacher Kari Valletto commented, “When people hear they're rare, they think it's pretty cool.”

There also was discussion of invasive non-native species such as the Asian brown malmorated stinkbug — which has made a resurgence.

“My car was covered in stink bugs when I came out of work (Wednesday),” Valletto said.

The falcon helped explain the effect of pesticides such as DDT on the reproductive ability of birds of prey.

The zoo staffers said DDT was sprayed on plants and absorbed into the muscles of mice and other small animals that ate them. In turn the DDT passed into the eggs of birds that ate the mice.

“The shells would be so weak that they would crack,” Mulvihill said.

She said falcons and other birds of prey have made a comeback since DDT was banned in the United States.

Thursday's trip was the first for the zoo staff's One Degree of Change natural gas vehicle donated by EQT Foundation.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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