NCSSM senior sets up own nonprofit group to preserve, educate about nature

There are many young people who are concerned about the environment, but Kenneth Xu has taken his commitment to a new level.

The North Carolina School of Sciences and Mathematics senior has formed his own nonprofit, 501(c)3 environmental group, the Student Environmental Education Coalition, with the twin goals of preserving greenspaces in the Triangle and educating the next generation of students about critical environmental issues.

The coalition has collaborated with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Community Garden and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment on education projects.

Xu, from Chapel Hill, first became interested in environmental issues when he visited relatives in China and saw first-hand the effects that pollution was having on the health of the Chinese people.

“When I first visited China, I became aware of how terrible the air pollution was and I got interested in the health aspects of it,” he said. “I started to do research and got an internship to study environmental health – the connections between air pollution and cognitive disorders like autism.”

Xu became determined to do something. He set up a summer camp in Chapel Hill that taught environmental science to elementary school children. Even though Xu is still in high school, he supervised college students who served as camp counselors. Xu worked to make the camp diverse, recruiting minorities and students from lower economic backgrounds who might not have otherwise had an opportunity to participate. Right now, his coalition is focused on producing seminars, workshops and smaller projects for the campers.

“I got more interested in the education side,” he said. “There’s a big gap between scientists and the public. Even though all of the science has been peer-reviewed and validated, it’s tough to explain to the public. I really wanted to get involved with kids, because they are the generation that’s going to be most affected by environmental issues in the future.”

For his efforts, Xu was honored with the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a national recognition for those who have undertaken a certain number of hours in community service.

Christine Muth, the biology coordinator at NCSSM, said Xu is a go-getter and a self-starter when it comes to his passion for learning about ecology and environmental sciences. For example, she said Xu contacted a lab at Duke University over the summer and created his own internship.

“It wasn’t something he applied for,” Muth said. “He’s obviously very bright, but what’s special about him is that he creates opportunities to learn for himself.”

When NCSSM brings in guest speakers to talk about the environment, Muth said Xu has even gone so far as to have lunch with one of them to discuss future career paths.

“He’s really good about asking questions,” she said. “He’s very enthusiastic about the environment. He’s always finding ways to improve his knowledge.”

Xu works as Muth’s lab assistant at NCSSM and tutors other students in aquatic ecology. In addition, he  has represented NCSSM as part of the science team that won first place in the state in the wildlife category and is the captain of the school’s National Ocean Sciences Bowl team.

Xu has big plans for the future. He is in the process of applying to colleges, but wherever he enrolls, he wants to study environmental biology and public policy, continuing to learn about how changes in the environment can affect public health. He also intends to attend grad school but hasn’t decided if he will pursue academic research or focus on nonprofit or government work. Xu is also an avid musician, playing the piano and bass clarinet and is a member of the school’s cross country team.

“I’m pretty interested in including environmental policy in my future career,” he said. “To me, the biggest issue is the effects of pollution. I’ve done a lot of research on the effects of air pollution on human health, and the stuff we’re finding is pretty scary. It’s connected to autism, diabetes, obesity, lung cancer and other types of cancer, and overall mortality. It’s something that affects everyone.”