To a wave of "ooh’s" and "ahh’s" coming from the crowd of more than a 100 eighth grade students, Kent Knowles a wildlife rehabilitation specialist from the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, raises his arm to show a once-injured peregrine falcon, the bird cawing lightly as it faces the children.
As he stands in the lecture hall at Rachel Carson Middle School, the once-endangered American falcon perched on his arm, Knowles explains how 45 years ago a biologist named Rachel Carson initiated the struggle to save the birds of prey from extinction.
Her controversial theory about the overuse of the pesticide DDT and its role in the destruction of bird and wildlife populations, chronicled in her 1962 scientific book, "Silent Spring," would eventually lead to the government-enforced prohibition of its widespread use 10 years later. As a result of the ban and other conservation efforts, the peregrine falcon, of the kind looking around silently to the crowd of middle school students from Knowles’ arm, was taken from the endangered species list in 2000.
The biologist, who died of cancer shortly after the publication of her study, is largely recognized as the mother of the modern day environmentalist movement.
"That is a success story that I hope we will never have to test again," said Knowles, after telling Rachel Carson’s story to the children. "Her foresight, her effort and her willingness to take on controversy for the betterment of all of us is something to really be admired."
HAVING AN EXAMPLE of the types of birds whose survival Rachel Carson lobbied so heavily for was important for the school to have on the 100th anniversary of the scientist’s birth, said Kara Piazza, a math teacher and coordinator of the school’s celebration last Friday.
"To see the birds up close, I think it brings it home for the students," Piazza said. "The kids, they come to the school here everyday and I’m not sure sometimes if they really realize what the name means."
"This gave us a chance to take a break and stop to think about what she stood for and what she ultimately was able to accomplish."
The falcon demonstration was one of many facets of the first two-hour Rachel Carson celebration at the school last week. Students attended an assembly with performances from fellow students that highlighted the beauty of nature by band and chorus groups, and took part in hands-on environmental activities with their teachers.
The event was to give the students something special to remember their school’s namesake, while at the same time reinforcing to them the values that Rachel Carson stood for, Piazza added.
"We do what we can in the classroom to teach the kids about these things, but this just allowed us to do more," she said, "to get those lessons across and have fun at the same time."
BUT IT’S NOT just Rachel Carson’s environmentalist efforts that were celebrated last week and imparted to students, but the overall manner of living life that she embodied, according to Rachel Carson Middle School principal Augie Fratalli.
"When students come in 7th grade, we try and indoctrinate some of the characteristics of Rachel Carson every day," Fratalli said. "This is not just a name for us. We try and teach students through her examples of her dedication, her effort, her bravery and her desire to influence change."
One of the most impressive characteristics within her drive to preserve wildlife and the planet was also the strength to stand up against the personal attacks and controversy that surrounded her decision to call for change, Fratalli said.
"Everything was stacked against her, she did not live an easy life," he said, "but she was committed toward making people aware and we see her message even today."
Those controversies have still not gone away, even 45 years after her death. Last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) effectively blocked a resolution that would honor Rachel Carson citing what he says is an unjustified blocking of the chemical DDT to prevent malaria and other insect-borne diseases.
BEING IN A SCHOOL that encourages Rachel Carson’s message of recognizing the industrial effects on the environment has influenced 14-year-old 8th grade student Taiyo Francis to pay more attention to his impact on the planet.
"I hate the fact that our society is going through global warming right now," Francis said. Rachel Carson "was one of the people who first stood up against that kind of thing, and it’s important for us to recognize that."
The message of Rachel Carson’s dedication to wildlife paired with the recent movement to raise awareness about global warming have led 8th grade student Umair Syed, 14, to recycle and pay more attention to nature.
"Our school teaches us to recycle, we have garden days where we plant things," Syed said. "They show us that it’s important to care about the environment."
Instilling that dedication and respect for the environment is important for not just the children of Rachel Carson Middle School but throughout the nation, Piazza said.
"I think they are going to have to be the generation that solves these problems like global warming and alternative energy," she said. "So it’s important for them now to understand some of these issues … and be good advocates for the environment."