Imagining Tomorrow H20 Competition Mentor Q&A

Q&A with Rhoda Toback, Imagining Tomorrow H20 Competition Mentor, Columbia, Maryland. Click here to view the original blog post on Medium.

The following post features a Q&A with Rhoda Toback of Columbia, MD, who served as a mentor in the Imagining Tomorrow H20 Competition during fall 2015. The competition was conducted in partnership between Sister Cities International (SCI) and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in order to connect U.S. science mentors with high school student teams across the globe to propose sustainable water solutions for the students’ communities. Rhoda mentored the competition’s winning team, Team DAYZINS, from Accra, Ghana.

1. What is your background and experience with water sustainability/management and science education?

I’ve always been passionate about water, as a child of ocean living and now as a lake lover with advocacy for its inhabitants and invasive pollutants, notably toxins from storm water run-off sweeping from hardscapes to outfalls winding on end to the Chesapeake Bay. Lake living induced me to become a Master Watershed Steward and HoLLIE, Howard County Legacy Leader, a non-profit with affiliated coursework at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. I’m an XM Candidate in Natural Resources at Virginia Tech Center for Leadership and Global Sustainability and serve as VC of the Columbia Association’s (CA) Watershed Advisory Committee.

2. Of all the STEM challenges out there, why do you believe that water sustainability is such an important issue?

Water is a primordial life source and is not renewable. Sustainability is not a passive consequence. In the U.S., sustainability is a mindful process requiring innovative leaders to remain intent on protecting and improving our natural resources, while in developing countries, concerns are for access to sustainable sanitation, farming, etc. We need to think bigger here at home and throughout the world.

3. Why were you interested in signing up as a mentor in the competition, and why did you have a particular interest in helping student teams in Ghana?

I became intrigued when Laura Smit, CA’s Program Manager for International Exchange & Multicultural Programs, pitched Sister Cities International (SCI) and NYAS’ global H20 challenge. Given my background in education, water sustainability, management, and credentials building Baltimore’s Alternative High Schools, serving as a Ghanaian student mentor appeared rich with potential.

4. How did having an international sister city connection enhance the partnership?

Participation in Tema and Columbia’s sister city signing agreement enhanced my connection to the partnership. Absent our SCI relationship, the challenge would not have come to light.

5. What were some of the highlights and challenges of the program? How did the students grow and how did you grow over the course of the program?

Academically, the program was a fertile ground of unknown expectations — for both me as a mentor and for the Ghanaian students who were educated in a different culture and time zone with a foreign educational foundation.

Idealistically, the rules were based on forging positive relationships to help solve local and global problems, although we seemed to hit a wall of unresponsiveness to engagement and dialogue. The original online platform wielded several issues, adding to communication challenges. However, we communicated via Gmail, consumed by weeks of learning how to develop a basic hypothesis, and ended up presenting and uploading monthly deliverables, while I strived for my teams to rise to U.S. academic expectations. Students grew through each submission and subsequent critique, eventually gaining ground. For me, their final submissions were the best reward, best illustrated by the following quote from my winning team, DAYZINS:

“We dedicate this award, which came as a surprise to us, to you. We are very excited at the news and we give thanks to you for guiding us throgh [sic.] the whole process. Indeed we’ve learnt a lot during this project which will be a useful experience in our future endeavors. We could not have done this without your help…Thanks very much for all what you have be [sic.] doing for us. We are very grateful and may the good lord bless you.”

6. Why do you think sister cities are a good platform for launching similar opportunities between cities in the future?

The sister cities movement is all about citizen diplomacy and personal relationships developed on the ground, paving the way forward. Planting seeds, with the potential to make a difference in the lives of international students, are opportunities awaiting.