Local high school students are spending the week learning how to identify and solve some of the Chattanooga area's conservation problems as part of a weeklong overnight summer camp with scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.
The inaugural teen camp is called CLAW, which stands for Conservation Leadership in Action Week, and it involves about 20 kids and has been made possible this summer thanks to a $10,000 Audubon and Toyota TogetherGreen grant awarded to TACI Director Dr. Anna George.
George, who was recently called an "environmental hero" by Audubon President David Yarnold, said the students have a full week of hands-on experiences designed to fuel their interest in conservation and environmentalist lifestyle choices, if not careers.
"The ultimate goal of our summer camp is not only are we exposing these kids to a lot of the conservation problems we have here in Chattanooga, but we want them to become conservation leaders," George said.
It appears to be working.
Red Bank High School junior Lynn Fults said she already plans to major in science in college but thinks the camp is a great inspiration and has "set her on fire" even more about the things she loves.
"So far, it has opened my eyes to so much more of what we live around and how much we actually affect the places where we live. You see the connections, and it brings it to life and makes it real for you," Fults said.
Fults said she hopes to bring some of that fire back home and to her school, where she would like to see the recycling program expand. She said she is also concerned about the construction at Red Bank Middle School and the effect it is having on the surrounding creeks.
For Fults and the others, the camp has so far included doing water-quality tests on the wetlands in Renaissance Park and in the Hiwassee River in Reliance, Tenn. George said the team found two elusive hellbenders, which are considered an indicator species for water quality.
"They learned how to sample different animals and use those as surrogates for water-quality information," George said.
On Tuesday, the camp spent the day at Crabtree Farms to learn how consuming and growing local food supports the environment.
The remainder of the week includes activities on topics like transportation, recycling and biodiversity. In the evenings, the campers are using iPads and Flip cameras supplied by the grant to work on their own research and presentations for individual projects.
Hixson High School senior Anjelica Vega is a member of the school's eco club and is especially interested in learning how to help stop pollution.
She said she signed up for the camp because she is "interested in being a part of the community and trying to make it better."
Vega said a project she hopes to focus on after the camp involves the all-terrain recreational vehicles on Aetna Mountain that are creating gigantic mudholes that look like a field full of peanut butter, which then flows into the waterways.
"They are destroying the ground," she said.
Vega said she plans to learn more about the situation and bring that information back to her fellow students at Hixson High School.
"Maybe if I get my classmates involved, then maybe a crowd can do something about this," she said.
And that is exactly the reaction George was hoping for with the new program.
"We're showing them some of the models that we have here in town that are solving our conservation problems and giving them the tools to create their own conservation projects when they get home," she said.
George was one of only 40 environmental leaders selected nationwide as a TogetherGreen fellow to kick-start the new initiative.
A complete list of the 2012 TogetherGreen fellows and details about their conservation projects can be found at www.TogetherGreen.org/fellows.