How do you organize a popular event that brings together people from our local community when that community can’t be together in person? That was the challenge faced by the organizers of the Idaho Falls Earth Day celebration, which has taken place every year since the 1990s.
“How would we reimagine this event within the constraints that we have?” asked Flint Hall, senior hydrogeologist at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and board member of the Eastern Idaho Environmental Education Association (EIEEA), the group that organizes Idaho Falls Earth Day.
Celebrated every year on April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. On the first Earth Day in 1970, millions of Americans demonstrated in streets, parks and college campuses as a unified response to environmental crises. The twentieth anniversary in 1990 saw Earth Day go global, reaching people in 141 countries. And this year, the fiftieth anniversary saw further transformation in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as observances largely went online.
“We needed to continue giving back,” said Chris Ischay, Sustainable INL manager. “We need to show the community that the environment is important to us. This is our home.”
The organizers of Earth Day activities in Idaho Falls had planned an expanded celebration this year, growing it into Earth Week to celebrate the 50th anniversary. When it became clear in the weeks leading up to the scheduled events that activities could not safely take place in large groups, the group quickly adjusted their plans to take the celebration online. Through the use of digital media, they were able to preserve their mission to reach out to the community and share the message of environmentalism.
Earth Week kicked off on April 20 with a virtual community bike ride, during which the public was encouraged to ride their bikes around town, to work, to shop or just for exercise. Originally planned as a critial mass ride, with a large group of people all biking together, this event translated easily to encouraging people to get out there and ride on their own.
“I know a person who had been afraid to ride her bike on the Idaho Falls roads,” said Veronika Vazhnik, graduate research fellow in the Data and Software Sciences department. “But after trying it for this event, she thought it was fun and decided to bike more often.”
Other days of the week featured talks and presentations. Dr. David Adler of the Alturas Institute gave an online seminar titled “Save the Planet, Save Humanity: Lessons from COVID-19.” Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate gave a virtual reading from her book, “My Place Among Men.” Local organizations focused on environmental protection and advocacy gave online presentations and provided links to resources.
Art made by children and adults became one of the major themes of Idaho Falls Earth Week. A local artist decorated downtown Idaho Falls with chalk art, and people from around the area shared pictures of their nature-inspired artistic creations online.
INL’s K-12 STEM program joined in the fun by holding an art competition for Idaho students. The program had originally planned to have a booth at the Earth Day event. When the physical event was canceled, they came up with the online art contest as a way of reaching a wide audience. Winners were announced in five categories. All submissions can be seen in the online gallery here.
“We had participation from all over the state of Idaho and even one submission from India,” said Jennifer Jackson, K-12 Education Programs manager. “I couldn’t have been more pleased with the response.”
INL’s K-12 STEM program has been sharing lesson plans for students learning from home using items found around the house. In the weeks surrounding Earth Day, these lessons focused on sustainability and environmental science with activities including “Build a Bird Feeder,” “Oil Spill Experiment” and “Soil Science.” To access these lessons, as well as their archive of at-home learning selections, visit the resource library at stem.inl.gov.
The final activity of the week was a plogging challenge. Plogging means jogging while picking up trash (from the Swedish plocka upp). Participants were encouraged to jog while cleaning up any garbage they might find along the way and photographing the results.
“There was a lot of excitement about the plogging,” said Hall. “We always like interactive pursuits. Maybe next year we can repeat this event and make a sculpture out of the trash collected.”
The main Earth Day event became a vendor fair broadcast over social media. Aubrey Johnson, who hosted the event and works on the Calcine Retrieval Project at Fluor Idaho, described how the transition came about: “We wanted to give our vendors a chance to get out there and advertise their earth-friendly initiatives. I’m very happy with how it all turned out.”
A common theme among those who helped plan this year’s event is the realization that online events can strengthen in-person events, which they hope can return next year.
“We will be able to keep online integration in the future, even if there is no need to social distance,” said Johnson. “We will be able to integrate a virtual presence with the physical event.”
No matter what the future looks like, the EIEEA will continue to partner with local organizations like INL, Fluor Idaho and Idaho DEQ to promote earth-friendly initiatives.
For more information visit ifearthday.com.