HATFIELD — Science teacher Emily Case wants her students to understand the flood of 1936 not just from a scientific perspective, but as part of their discussion surrounding climate change, the focus of the Cooler Communities program.

“Any time we get the opportunity to understand a flood from a scientific perspective, a historical perspective, a geographical perspective and then also an empathetic perspective, we should take that opportunity,” Case said.

Case’s eighth grade science students at Smith Academy learned about the calamities of the flood of 1936 as part of a project about climate change. On May 4, in tandem with the annual cornhole tournament, over half a dozen projects by Hatfield students were showcased as part of a Cooler Communities event.

Cooler Communities, set up in 2019, leverages classroom learning so that students help guide their communities toward smarter climate planning. The nonprofit is working with a dozen municipalities and school districts this year, offering grants of up to $5,000. The program helps students understand how they can be a powerful agent of change in their own town.

That goal appeals to Town Administator Marlene Michonski. The Cooler Communities event coincides with the town of Hatfield’s effort to write a new comprehensive plan. Town officials were looking for a way to involve the student population, one of three vulnerable groups identified by the newly established Comprehensive Planning Committee.

“They’re the future generation. They need to be educated and understand what climate is all about and how climate is changing,” Michonski said. “They need to understand that, and also be part of how we plan for climate change.”

To prepare for current and future leadership roles Hatfield students are learning different lessons. Patty Gambarini, a chief environmental planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, appreciated that some kids are out learning how to evaluate the integrity of culverts.

“Students know what a catch basin is now,” Gambarini said. “How many kids in our generation knew what a catch basin is? Kids are developing understanding and know how. We didn’t know what stormwater was and where it went and how it impacts us.”

Even one person can mitigate the damage of stormwater runoff. That’s what students in Megan Millette’s sixth grade math and science class learned. A city of Philadelphia architect, Megan Sweeney, visited the class to talk about designing green rooms in urban areas. Students were then tasked with designing a city block to better manage stormwater runoff.

“They learned about green roofs and cisterns,” Millette said. “They had a budget, and they had to come up with what to do with their buildings and their streets…It draws their attention to what even one person can do to mitigate climate change.”

Members of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, hoping to draw in the participation of students, tapped into middle school social studies teacher Kevin Wall’s civics classroom. Town officials needed to know what students thought about climate change, what worried them, and if they saw any role they could play in protecting the town. Wall’s students focused on different ways students are impacted, socially and emotionally, and drew up a survey for the student body.

The survey results were surprisingly optimistic.

“There isn’t a huge amount of fear in regard to climate change,” Wall said. “They felt they could work to make a difference, but they were unclear about how to go about making that difference. Close to 70% of respondents came back with that.”

Case’s science class may have discovered why today’s students have confidence the town will deal well with climate change: a strong sense of community. The class went to the Hatfield Museum to look at photographs from 1936. The students saw pictures of the houses they live in, friends’ houses, landmarks and the buildings they know, all flooded by the rising river. The old grainy pictures could’ve frightened them, but didn’t.

“My goal wasn’t fear. My goal was to understand both the history and the reality of living in the floodplain,” Case said. “The stories that we heard and saw, in photos and news clippings, it was definitely a community coming together, neighbor helping neighbor. That was reflected in some of the kid’s journal entries.”

The students saw evidence that Hatfield’s sense of community dates back at least 90 years. Now, they see that same sense of community rising to a challenge with a new Comprehensive Plan. This time, after doing projects with Cooler Communities, the young are empowered to help in the effort to prepare.

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