Extracurricular Activities for Budding Environmental Science Majors
While many students are joining the math league or the French club, others might not have a school club to reflect their interests or passions. For students interested in environmental science, the choices may seem limited. Of course you could compete in the science fair or join Science Olympiad, but those options might not be focused on the specific types of science that interest you.
If you’re interested in environmental science and you’re looking for ways to pursue your interest while also establishing it as a serious extracurricular activity, this post is for you. Here, we’ll outline seven extracurricular options for the environmental scientists of tomorrow, ranging from volunteer work to independent studies to research projects. Keep reading to jump-start your future in environmental science.
1. Volunteer for a Local Nonprofit
Including a service element in your extracurricular involvement is always a good idea, and meshing the service element with an area of interest makes even more sense. And there’s good news, too — environmental science tends to be an area where volunteer opportunities abound.
You might get started by looking for established volunteer opportunities. These might include recycling programs, conservation projects, habitat restoration work, or sustainable living education. Network through friends, family, and teachers to get an idea of what already exists in your area.
If you can’t find something that suits your interests or that works for your schedule, you could always start your own volunteer project as a personal mission or with a group of interested peers. Talk to a teacher or mentor to decide if this is a good option for you.
Volunteering will allow you to learn about the nonprofit world, which is integral to many environmental science organizations. You’ll also gain exposure to the day-to-day activity of these organizations, including research, publications, public outreach, manual labor, and more.
Finally, your volunteer work could provide important networking for future work or mentoring. Be sure to keep in touch with your volunteer supervisor even after you’ve finished your project, and let him or her know if you’re available for future work. This connection could be become an important one further down the line as you pursue higher education and ultimately a career.
2. Conduct a Research Project
An independent research project is a great option for the future environmental scientist who is seriously considering a career in research. To get started, think of the local issues or concerns that interest you. Try to find something that you truly care about or that’s locally relevant. This will make your work more meaningful.
Also try to find a mentor who can help to guide you as you go. This could be a teacher, or it could be someone else who has some level of expertise in the field and has worked with you closely in some capacity in the past.
To learn more about conducting an independent research project, see our post A Guide to Pursuing Research Projects in High School.
3. Conduct Your Own Public Outreach Campaign
Another way to show that you care about environmental science and while also effecting change in your community is by conducting a public outreach campaign focused on an area of personal interest or local relevance. While it’s possible that you could run an outreach campaign on your own, you’ll be more effective and generally achieve a broader reach if you start a school club or a community program that allows you to work as part of a team.
Starting your own outreach campaign shows great leadership skills and initiative. In addition, you will ideally have the satisfaction of seeing the impact that your programs have on your community.
Some common ideas for public outreach campaigns could include Meatless Mondays, recycling or repurposing programs, or important habitat conservation in your community. Your best bet, though, is to think about the issues that really concern you on the local level and start there.
To learn more about the process for starting a club at your school, check out our post How to Start a Club in High School.
4. Enroll in a Summer Program or College Classes
If you have time to pursue this particular extracurricular during the summer months, you’ll find that you have even more opportunities available to you. Many programs offer summer environmental classes along with extensive labs and hands-on fieldwork. Here are a few options to consider:
Sustainable Summer offers travel and adventure learning trips geared specifically towards environmental science. Their courses range from ecology, conservation, and agriculture, to policy, sustainable design, and sustainable energy. Courses take place in exotic locales such as India, Ecuador, and the Galapagos, but their Environmental Leadership Academy is offered only at Dartmouth College.
The National Student Leadership Conference also offers an Environmental Science and Sustainability Program. Here, students work with top research scientists and policy advocates to explore pressing environmental issues and the careers that address them. Classes take place at either Yale University or the University of Washington.
Brown University offers high school students the chance to “study the interactions between natural and social systems with Brown-affiliated educators and place-based experts.” Courses also include leadership development with the mission of developing socially responsible leaders of tomorrow. Brown Environmental Leadership Lab (BELL) is offered both in Alaska and along the Rhode Island coast.
Another strong option is the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Science. In this program, high school students work in actual research laboratories on existing projects, supervised by graduate students. Different areas of focus and varying time commitments are available. At this time, only high school students who go to school in the San Francisco Bay Area are eligible.
Keep in mind that if you pursue one of these opportunities, it will be most meaningful on your college application only if you do so as part of a bigger context. That is to say, participating in one summer program for a limited period of time, particularly if the program is located in a remote part of the world, does little to contextualize your interest in environmental science as a serious and prolonged pursuit.
While there is still worth in these experiences and you’re likely to learn a lot, Harvard’s recent Making Caring Common campaign points out that meaningful experiences are typically longer in duration and involve local causes in which you have an invested, long-term interest.
If a short-duration, intensive residential program isn’t right for you, consider taking an online college course or a class at your local community college.
5. Self-Study for the Environmental Science AP Exam
If your school offers the Environmental Science AP course, you should definitely take it to affirm your interest in the subject matter. If, however, the course is not offered at your school, you may still take the AP exam as a self-study test. In fact, the Environmental Science AP is one of the AP exams most commonly taken as a self-study. Its heavy emphasis on vocabulary and highly specific theory make it a test that you can prepare for without formal classwork, if you dedicate yourself to focused studying beforehand.
You will need to plan to take the exam well in advance. In order to register for an AP outside of AP classes at your school, you’ll need to speak with your school’s AP coordinator by early February. If the test is not offered at your school, you’ll need to arrange to test at a nearby school that does offer it. AP Services can provide you with a list of nearby schools that will be administering the exam.
To learn more about the Environmental Science AP, read our post Ultimate Guide to the Environmental Science AP Exam. To learn more about self-studying and registering for the exam, see our posts How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class) and The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams.
6. Shadow a Professional
Shadowing a professional in the field of environmental science is a smart idea for several different reasons. First, by doing so you’ll gain important insight and firsthand experience in what environmental scientists actually do on a daily basis. Next, you’ll demonstrate that you take your interest in environmental science seriously enough to devote time and energy to pursuing it away from school. Finally, you’ll form important networking relationships with working professionals and could even form a lasting relationship with someone who might be willing to mentor you later on.
To get started, network through friends, family, and teachers to identify professionals who might be willing to let you shadow for a week or two. Reach out to a few at a time. That way, if someone says no, you still have some other possibilities lined up, and if more than one person says yes, you can set up your shadowing experiences to occur over consecutive weeks. Capitalize on the experience by soaking it all in — pay attention to what is happening around you. Ask questions if you don’t understand.
When you’re done following one professional, you could consider one of two choices. First, if you enjoyed the experience and feel that you could contribute something, you could ask to continue as an apprentice or intern. Alternatively, if that doesn’t feel right for whatever reason, you could ask to be put in touch with another professional in a different specialty so that you can gain some broader experience in the field.
7. Get a Paid Internship
Paid internships are kind of the holy grail of professional high school gigs. They aren’t commonly available for students under the age of 18, but they are certainly out there if you look hard enough. Some large, national organizations even have internship programs that pay.
The Nature Conservancy partners with schools across the country to offer its LEAF program (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future). It exists in 28 states and over 1000 students have participated. This internship supplements environmental education in the classroom with real-world experiences, aiming to inspire the future of conservation.
You can also check various national organizations such as NOAA, the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation, the EPA, and the USGS for paid internship opportunities. Though they don’t always have them — and when they do the application process is fairly selective — you never know when an opportunity might arise that’s just the right fit for you.
A professional, paid internship will not only build your experience and insight in the field — it will also fill your pockets with some extra savings or spending money.
Environmental science is an important field that is growing rapidly. As sustainable living and sustainable energy become more and more important, the field will need smart, dedicated scientists to help it advance. While there might not be an environmental science club for you to join, there are plenty of other opportunities to explore this important field and demonstrate your commitment to it during your high school years.
If you’re interested in pursuing environmental science but need a little more direction, or if you’re wondering how to build an impressive extracurricular portfolio, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.
For more information about extracurricular activities and careers in the STEM fields, check out these posts: