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Federal Grant Boosts Berkeley’s Environmental Outreach Efforts

Federal Grant Boosts Berkeley’s Environmental Outreach EffortsAs Mark Spencer sees it, students at the University of California-Berkeley have had too little guidance and resources to help them join community organizations in the San Francisco Bay area that are involved in environmental education and restoration projects. Spencer, a Ph.D. candidate in Forest Ecology at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, says there’s been a lack of coordination and information sharing to ensure continuity of student participation in Bay area environmental work.
“What I’ve seen are students reinventing the wheel every time they began working with a community group and progress coming to a halt once their student career is finished,” Spencer says.
This fall, a special community outreach unit at UC-Berkeley that facilitates information technology-focused outreach efforts by the university has joined up with the school’s College of Natural Resources and several Bay area community groups to develop a Web-based infrastructure and to make available technology tools that should make UC-Berkeley and its students a more effective partner with local environmental groups. 
Last month’s public announcement that UC-Berkeley is a recipient of a Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration marks an inaugural moment for the City Watershed project, which is being led by U.C.-Berkeley’s Interactive University organization. The grant is for $648,707, and it will be matched by other funding sources for a total project cost of $1,319,610 through March 2006.
The term “watershed” refers to a region or an area that contributes to the supply of a large body of water, such as a river, lake or bay. The U.C.-Berkeley effort targets the urban watershed region of the San Francisco Bay. The overall goal of the City Watershed project is to increase community involvement in and understanding of the urban watershed so that citizens, students, teachers and community activists can contribute solutions to the environmental and social problems in the Bay area’s watershed. Specific goals of the project include creating on-site watershed learning laboratories, establishing creek-side classrooms with wireless networks where K-12 teachers can teach students in inquiry-based environmental education, and getting students and others to participate in field research and restoration programs.
To facilitate cooperation and information sharing among community groups and U.C.-Berkeley volunteers, the project will develop a Watershed Contribution Exchange System, an XML-based Web content-sharing environment on the Internet, through which users will access information such as maps, insect identification slides and water-quality data. Users of the exchange system will also be expected to contribute content such as “watershed data, photo collections documenting a neighborhood stream restoration, or policy recommendations developed for public presentations,” according to officials.
City Watershed activities will occur in Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco and based at five “watershed learning laboratories,” and in community centers and schools.
“We’re hoping to build upon existing collaborations to increase the university’s participation and citizen involvement in restoring watersheds. Technology can enhance the work and cooperation among the partners,” says Rick Jaffe, the City Watershed project manager for the Interactive University group at U.C.-Berkeley.
Interactive University officials explain that the idea behind the initiative is to get citizens, particularly the poor and minorities, focused on “water pollution and the loss of natural habitat; health problems resulting from environmental degradation; and the risk of fire as cities expand into wilderness areas.” The project seeks four outcomes: increase citizen participation and understanding of the urban watershed; enable community members to make significant contributions to improving the natural and social environment; build a sustainable regional partnership of city watershed partners; and develop a Watershed Contribution Exchange system, integrated into the work of project partners.
Jaffe adds that the project is serving as a vehicle to move U.C.-Berkeley to a higher level of involvement with and commitment to local communities on environmental issues. Originally, the Interactive University Project (IU) was begun as a collaboration of several UC- Berkeley academic departments, research units and museums, and Bay area K-12 schools and community organizations. Since 1995, it has largely explored how “university/K-12 partnerships can best use the Internet to support schools and families.” In 1996, the IU secured a TOP grant, which was known then as Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program or (TIIAP), that helped establish IU’s early education initiatives.
Spencer, who in addition to being a U.C.-Berkeley graduate student is active with a group called the Urban Creeks Council, says that while the City Watershed project is set to advance local environmental activity as a whole, graduate students like himself will find it easier to bring their expertise to community-based environmental projects. As a volunteer, Spencer founded a project at ethnically diverse Richmond High School in Richmond, Calif., that gets high-school students involved in restoring creeks. 

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