In the Carole Williams-Green Environmental Education and Exhibits Room in the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center (CCCEC), fishing poles line one wall, paintings of birds decorate another, and tables around the light-filled room display duck decoys, an aquarium with a swimming turtle, and found specimens like wasp and bird nests. It’s a space wholly designed for piquing students’ curiosity about nature and science.
That was the main item on the agenda on a warm Friday morning in late July. Half a dozen students from West Philadelphia’s Paul Robeson High School gathered around a seminar table, examining photos they had taken of vegetation on the Center’s property earlier in the week. Penn’s Jane Dmochowski, a senior lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, along with undergraduate assistant Henry Feldman, graduate student Melanie Chu and Water Center at Penn staff member Jazmin Ricks, led a discussion on the technique of remote sensing to evaluate the landscape over vast scales.
After a quick lesson, the group ventured outside to see just how vast. Unfurling a giant tape measure across a grassy field just beyond the Center’s parking lot, the students plotted out the expanse of open space represented by a single pixel of remote sensing data.
The Robeson students, part of a summer enrichment program supported by Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, were in an ideal place to be immersed in environmental education: The 850 acres of woods, creeks, meadows, and trails of Cobbs Creek Park and the CCCEC, which has served as a cornerstone of environmental education and outreach for three decades.
For the last year, with support from a Projects for Progress (P4P) award, a team from Penn has collaborated with Center staff and the Cobbs Creek community to enhance resources to support similar learning opportunities at the CCCEC. Their goal is to promote equitable access to STEM education for residents of the Cobbs Creek neighborhood.
“Now more than ever, our society understands the value of green spaces and of STEM education, and the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center provides both for West Philadelphia families and students,” says President Liz Magill. “The team that came together under the Projects for Progress initiative has worked with creativity and a collaborative mindset for the last year and a half. The tools they’ve provided and the relationships they’ve built will help foster a love of science and nature in the Center’s visitors for many years to come.”
A community touchstone
The Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center arose from a nonprofit organization launched in the early 1990s by neighborhood resident and long-time educator Carole Williams-Green. A partnership with the city led to the site coming under Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation stewardship in 2017.
Located at 63rd and Catharine streets, the Center’s sloping driveway ushers visitors into a green “oasis,” where “the city falls away behind you,” says Ocek Eke, director for graduate student academic programming at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Visiting the Center several years ago while looking for service-learning opportunities for Penn Engineering students, Eke was struck by the beauty of its setting—and the untapped potential for Penn student, staff, and faculty engagement.
When the call for P4P proposals went out early in 2021, “a lightbulb went off in my head,” Eke says. “I spoke with some colleagues and thought it was a long shot, but they said if you don’t apply, you can’t win.”
The P4P initiative, established in 2020 by then-President Amy Gutmann, is designed to support proposals by teams of students, faculty, and staff designed to promote equity and inclusion and make a direct impact in Philadelphia.
Eke assembled a core team for the P4P project: Anna Balfanz, Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) Coordinator at the Netter Center; Cooper Yerby, a doctoral student in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science; and Erica DePalma, formerly the senior water systems program manager in the Water Center. One of the inaugural recipients of the P4P prize, the $100,000 they wound up receiving has gone toward purchasing new equipment to facilitate existing programs and support further educational opportunities at CCCEC. Additional support from a Making a Difference in Diverse Communities grant from the School of Arts & Sciences and from the City of Philadelphia are providing more enhancements to the Center and its programming.
“If we want to get students interested in STEM education, it has to be early,” says Eke. “When you bring them here, in a place like Cobbs Creek, and they can run around the creek, get their feet all wet and muddy and look at the little fish that are swimming around and start asking questions—by having a place like this, we have the potential to not just raise awareness, but to spark curiosity.”
A listening campaign
The Center has long offered a robust suite of programming, from Boy and Girl Scout troops to their Junior Docent program, which trains and then pays local high school students to give tours of the park. Bird walks and a signature maple sugaring program in late winter are other popular offerings. But “we’re still called a ‘hidden gem,’” says Alicia Burbage, director of operations for the Center and a lifelong Cobbs Creek resident. She has welcomed the partnership with Penn as another chance to broaden the visibility of the Center; to get more people using the lab spaces, classrooms, creeks, and meadows on site; and to improve the equipment available to conduct the types of environmental education for which the site is so well-suited.
Before making any decisions about how to spend the award, “Team Cobbs Creek,” as the P4P group calls themselves, set about asking the staff and community members what they wanted and needed most. The Penn group made multiple visits to the Center to talk with staff, attended community meetings where they introduced themselves, and arranged multiple meetings with science teachers and students from neighborhood elementary, middle, and high schools. They explained their intention to work in partnership to enhance the Center, asking what staff, residents, educators, and other stakeholders felt was most essential and could do the most good for Cobbs Creek.
“Progress moves at the speed of trust,” says DePalma. “As we were coming here and meeting with the staff and community, we were gaining a sense of need and gaining a relationship. Everything is informed by the folks who live here, work here. It’s 100% community driven.”
In the fall of 2021, the P4P team met with Center staff, Parks and Rec representatives, and community leaders to inventory existing supplies and equipment. Some immediate needs jumped out: While the Center had dozens of microscopes, for example, they didn’t have electric plugs at the lab benches for students to use them in small groups.
“We’re making sure we provide the students with the right tools so they can get the best experience,” says Burbage. The spending priorities were framed, she says, “not just for the right-now, but for looking into the future, how we want to see our programs grow and flourish.”
After months of conversations and investigation, the team began to buy new equipment for the Center. So far, they’ve secured new fishing poles, fishing nets, and muck boots for messy exploring in the creek. They’ve gotten umbrellas for the outdoor tables for students to enjoy their lunches next to the facility’s lush gardens. New, battery-operated microscopes allow students to move around the building, or even venture outside to get a close-up view of water or soil samples, while water testing kits and glassware expand opportunities for assessments of local water quality. And two large monitors to be installed at the Center’s front entrance will display information on programming as well as colorful photographs of students engaged in learning at Cobbs Creek.
Other purchases are in the works, such as a large stream table that will enable tactile, group lessons on erosion, sedimentation, and hydrology. Douglas Jerolmack, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, plans to volunteer at the Center and use the table to teach lessons on the physics of the creek. Additional support from the Making a Difference grant is ensuring the sustainability of the P4P work thus far, helping support educational programming such as the enrichment program for Robeson students.
Beyond the tangible goods that the CCCEC now has to support learning, the P4P team hopes a lasting impact of their project will be the relationships they’ve developed, connections that can form the foundation for future opportunities.
“One of the biggest things we wanted to do is create lasting conversations between a variety of stakeholders in Philadelphia and the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center,” says Yerby. “We were particularly interested in connecting the local people who live around the Center, students in Philadelphia, and teachers in Philadelphia. I think we’ve done a great job of keeping those doors of communication open, and now that we’ve introduced these groups together and have gotten people excited about the Center, we’re planning for all of the interconnectivity to continue in the future, and to have Penn professors and students continuing to work with the Center.
Learning in action
Already, the fishing poles and water testing equipment have been put to use by the Robeson students and other children visiting the facility, enabling them to delve into Cobbs Creek and explore the natural environment. That’s the kind of intervention that can reshape educational and career trajectories, the team says.
“It’s so important for this space to be here,” says DePalma. “Not every student learns the same way. Something this space offers is the ability for students to get really hands-on and to give students an opportunity to learn science, math—things that can be intimidating—in a way that’s fun for them.”
On that July day, after their remote sensing lesson, students moved to an upstairs laboratory. They spritzed water onto a square of crinkled aluminum foil—a topographic simulation of a Philadelphia neighborhood. Small sponges were placed strategically to soak up the water, simulating the effects of green infrastructure during heavy rainstorms.
That same morning, a group from the William Penn Foundation roundtable visited the environmental center for a walk to explore grant funding opportunities in West Philadelphia. And at lunchtime, the Center played host to a meeting of a group devoted to improving the Delaware River watershed.
This parade of activity, says CCCEC’s Burbage, “is a quiet day” for the Center. She prefers “organized chaos,” with students and adult learners coming in and out, doing archery, tending the garden, going birdwatching, performing water sampling. The more people who come in, the better, she says. And she's hopeful the P4P support will help foster that reality.
“With Penn being a partner with us, it opens eyes for other people to take a look and want to participate,” she says, though she measures progress on the scale of the individual. “If we have touched the lives and changed the outlook for at least one youth, I think we’ve made a difference.”
Anna Balfanz is the Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) Coordinator at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships.
Alicia Burbage is director of operations at the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center
Erica DePalma was senior water systems program manager at the Water Center at Penn.
Ocek Eke is director for graduate student academic programming at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Cooper Yerby is a doctoral student in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Penn.