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Environmental indicators

Photo by Beth Chajes

Senior’s internship with DNREC lays the groundwork for environmental health-tracking tool

Imagine having a handy, web-based tool that would provide detailed yet easily accessible information about the health of Delaware’s water, air, wildlife or other natural resources over time.

That was the goal that University of Delaware senior Stephanie Miles kept in mind each time she reported for work at her internship with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), where she helped to lay the groundwork for the development of a tool to present “indicators” of environmental health.

Miles worked with her mentors Phil Cherry and Susan Love in DNREC’s Division of Energy and Climate on the first phase of this large, multiyear project that would eventually become a public resource to track the quality of Delaware’s environment. An indicator tool would at first provide baseline information about water quality, air pollution, soil contamination, green space, wildlife populations and other measures, then track changes in those measures over time.

Miles’ internship was the result of a partnership between DNREC and the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) at the University of Delaware.

Each year since 2011, DENIN and DNREC have worked together to provide opportunities for students seeking internships in environmental policy. DNREC personnel propose projects for the interns and supervise their work, while DENIN recruits qualified students and provides a stipend for the duration of the program, with funding through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Typically, the internships have taken place over eight weeks during the summer. Past projects have included topics such as the use of native plants in redevelopment and restoration sites and an assessment of Delaware’s oil spill liability regulations.

In 2015, with the environmental indicator project on deck, DNREC decided to test the feasibility of a longer-term internship, and Miles was selected for the first full academic-year internship offered through the DENIN/DNREC partnership.

A background in environmental policy

Miles already had an impressive background in environmental policy and advocacy work as an energy and environmental policy major at UD. She had discovered her love of grassroots community organizing through an internship last summer, when she fought a natural gas plant proposal near her home in upstate New York. It was then that she gained experience interviewing local stakeholders and people within organizations that would impact the energy choices in her area.

When Miles was selected for the DNREC environmental indicators project last November, she had the opportunity to put her previously acquired skills to work. She was familiar with similar indicator tools, but she had never imagined being involved in the implementation of an indicator project from the ground up.

Part of Miles’ internship was figuring out how the environmental indicators could be used in Delaware. To do so, she interviewed environmental professionals to determine needs and objectives for the project. She also compiled lists of existing data sets that could be used to develop indicators.

Her mentor, Phil Cherry, director of the DNREC Division of Energy and Climate, explained the broad use of the indicator tool: “This type of project is in step with many states’, municipalities’ and community organizations’ current projects to measure and report on conditions and trends as a baseline for creating more livable and sustainable communities.”

He pointed out that an indicator tool could help to educate a wide variety of people about progress toward environmental goals and prioritize government spending on key issues.

“This project has helped me realize the benefits that these baseline measurements would provide,” Miles said. “This tool can be useful not just for DNREC, but also for public outreach and education.”

She’d like to see the project go a step further than identifying environmental indicators, especially after seeing the effects of social constructs on the environment.  

“Hopefully, the indicator tool will eventually include community factors,” she said. “For example, how many miles do you have to drive to get to work? I’m not just looking at environmental indicators, I’m looking at both.”

She presented her work on the indicator project at a meeting of DNREC’s division leaders led by Secretary David Small on May 10 and in a written report.

Miles said she is proud of the skills she gained through the internship in leadership, research, interviewing and working independently to name a few. She says that Cherry and Love, her mentors at DNREC, have helped her learn how to write effective agendas, workplans and government documents and have given her opportunities to co-lead meetings.

“The best thing they’ve done is taught me that the internship was what I wanted to make of it, and they have made me feel like an integral part of the project’s development,” she said.

Her experiences with DNREC have opened her eyes to the possibility of graduate school and then possibly a job within government.

“I like working with the government,” she said. “I think you can have a big impact.”

For now, however, Miles, who led the registered student organization Students for the Environment this past year at UD and graduated in May, plans to spend some time working with the organization Green Corps, a training program for environmental organizing, where she will lead three to five campaigns in communities across the country.

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