Solving the Problems of Today Benefits the Generation of Tomorrow

A Chinese proverb states, “One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade.” This may sound simple, but planting the trees to provide shade for the next generation is not always as easy as it sounds. At the Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai, students gained the tools necessary to plant the figurative trees of change and make the world a better place for generations to come.

Through speakers and workshops, students learned the design thinking process, which uses creativity and collaboration to develop solutions to the complex problems the world faces today. While students at the Summit used the design thinking process to focus on global issues, the same concept can be applied closer to home.

Locally, air pollution caused by wood smoke is a big problem that affects everyone who breathes in this polluted air. The people burning moist wood, which emits thick smoke, are most directly affected, but any neighbors downwind of a backyard bonfire breathe the harmful particles in wood smoke, since these particles are small enough to seep through closed doors and windows.

The challenge is to decrease the amount of wood smoke – which contains harmful toxins and particles that can cause cancer and other diseases – emitted from recreational bonfires.

Increasing the use of moisture meters – a tool that measures the moisture content of firewood – in urban areas where recreational burning is common could alleviate the issue: moist wood, when burned, releases more smoke than dry wood. By using a meter to make sure that the moisture content is less than 20%, people could reduce their footprint on the environment and help ensure the good health of both their neighbors and their own families.

The next challenge is spreading knowledge of wood smoke pollution and how the moisture meter can help alleviate the problem. Through community awareness, those who enjoy bonfires would realize that others around them are affected by the smoke their backyard fires produce; this realization could encourage people to have fewer bonfires. Raising awareness of the benefits of the moisture meter would increase the use of the device and thus reduce wood smoke pollution.

Implementing ideas starts with education. For instance, handing out a brochure detailing the harmful effects of wood smoke and what individuals can do to lessen their footprints is a good start to reducing wood smoke emissions. Handing out brochures would evolve into a more comprehensive campaign to build awareness of the health hazards of wood smoke.

Social responsibility can be active, such as encouraging people to use a moisture meter before they burn firewood; but it can also be passive, such as deciding not to have as many bonfires. Either way, our community as a whole benefits.

Just as planting a tree gives shade to the next generation, solving the problems our earth faces today will give generations to come a better world to live in.

Trusting and listening: Keys in both diplomacy and social entrepreneurship

“It’s hard to manage a relationship as complicated and…sensitive and…oftentimes erratic as the US-China relationship is without trust,” said Jon Huntsman, Jr., former ambassador to China and former governor of Utah.

At the Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai, I attended a press conference in which Huntsman answered questions from student journalists. I asked him what can be done to promote a higher level of trust between the US and China. Huntsman said that in order to build trust in any setting, the two parties must have mutual successes. “Trust will be a natural outgrowth of some wins…and successes of our bilateral engagement.”

Through my experiences at the Summit, I realized that in the process of trust-building, both parties become better acquainted with each other’s characters, contributing to the dissolution of often disrespectful generalizations. In a social entrepreneurship setting, knowing people by their own characters instead of by broad stereotypes is important in working together and combining ideas to create a social program.

Mike Shao is a 15-year-old from Shenzhen, China. He has been studying English for six years and now speaks the language fluently. Shao said he believes it is too easy to generalize when summing up a group of people; it is important to instead meet an individual and realize that his personality doesn’t fit the generalization. Only then can one understand the person’s character and what he is capable of accomplishing. “You have to listen to what he is saying, and measure what he is doing, to know who he is,” Shao noted.

Another student leader, Maxime Pincemin-Johnstone, is from Northampton, England but currently lives in Texas. He said that people need to be able to communicate with each other normally and not awkwardly, since the latter could lead to misunderstanding. When I asked him what advice he would give to other students who are meeting people from other countries, he said, “[Students should] be like a sponge and soak up as much information as they can.”

Because all individuals have unique perspectives based on their experiences and education, it is vital to listen to the insights of others. Establishing trust and listening to others is key in social entrepreneurship, because the enterprise depends on the opinions and ideas of many people coming together to create the best solutions to the problems our world faces today.

China: A cultural relic

If I lived in China, I would starve, simply because I am an imbecile when it comes to chopsticks. The food in China has been delicious and interesting, but it – and the chopsticks used to eat it – is just a small part of China’s diverse culture.

Chopsticks made every meal in Beijing interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the sightseeing.

Tiananmen Square was closed, and soldiers in crisp green coats marched down the sidewalk alongside our tour group of thirty American teens. I watched them walk side by side, their arms swinging in time and their boots clicking on the sidewalk. Although all of us wanted to take pictures of this spectacle, our tour guide warned us that if we so much as pointed a camera lens at the officers, they would take the camera and delete the pictures; although sneaking a quick snapshot from the bus was tempting, we dared not risk it.

We were also warned to never publicly mention “the three T’s”: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen.

As Americans who are guaranteed the right of free speech, we often forget that in many countries – such as China – sensitive issues are taboo, and mentioning these issues in public is a mistake.

As we walked under Mao’s portrait and into the Forbidden City, I gazed around at the remarkably well-preserved buildings that date back to a time when the United States was a thing of the distant future. I marveled at the rich culture of China’s past, as well as how the country has blended that culture with the modern cosmopolitan society.

The strangest thing I saw in the Forbidden City was a sign outside a public toilet. It noted that the restroom was a “star-rated toilet” that the Beijing Tourism Administration had given 4 stars. The tour guide pointed it out and strongly recommended that we all use it. He was quite serious and solemn about it, and he seemed a bit peeved when we all started laughing at the absurdity of it.

After leaving the Forbidden City, we piled into the bus for a dramatic drive to a Chinese high school. China’s streets are chaotic, and although (as the tour guide solemnly informed us) cars are “theoretically” supposed to use lanes, what I saw was a swarming crowd of cars traveling 2 mph; most of them had at least one tire in the wrong lane. There were crosswalks at the stoplights, but most pedestrians seemed to prefer to dash across one lane and stand on the centerline, cars passing within inches of them as the pedestrians waited – seemingly without concern for their own safety – for a break in the next lane’s traffic. Bicycles swerved in between cars.

There was a lot of honking. “Minnesota Nice” seems to have stayed in Minnesota.

Frenzied honking, jerky stops, and swerving lane changes characterized the long drive from the Forbidden City to the high school. When we finally tumbled out of the bus and trooped into the school, a surprise awaited us.

While high schools in the US are large, boxy, and boring, high schools in China (based on what I saw) are large, elegant, and extravagant. The school we toured was complete with its own museum, which included taxidermy and a summary of China’s political history, not to mention a geology exhibit and a display of China’s space history.

In the school, each grade wears a different color uniform. They start their day at 7:30 a.m. on the outdoor track, where all 3,000 students complete their morning exercises together. School continues until 5 p.m.

Although a 9.5 hour school day at first sounded like torture to the American students, we became envious when we learned that homework is minimal and that the students get a 40 minute lunch break. If only we had access to such luxuries!

Traveling to China has helped give me a sense of how different the United States is from foreign cultures. As we finish our tour of this country and its rich history and culture, I reflect upon this opportunity to learn firsthand about one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world.

Air pollution: A problem without borders

After school one day, as I ran with my cross country team, I ran through smoke coming from someone’s backyard bonfire. I took a gulp of what I expected to be the relatively clean, fresh air I had been breathing throughout my run; instead, I gagged on bonfire smoke. As I ran clear of the smoky haze swirling across the sidewalk in the breeze, I was desperately gasping for clean air.

As I prepare to visit China, I worry about its air pollution. I will not run in China, but I cannot help thinking how terrible it would be to live in a place where every breath is unhealthy.

My breaths were unhealthy in one neighborhood because of one person’s bonfire – part of his footprint in our community and our world. The air quality in the Twin Cities is good compared to that in many places around the globe, but does this type of comparison lead to a false sense of security? “It’s good enough” or “at least our air is cleaner than theirs” has become the widely accepted standard of measuring the impact we make on the environment every day.

One of the main reasons for the harmfulness of breathing in wood smoke is the content of the smoke: toxic chemicals and fine particles.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, most wood smoke particles are less than 2.5 microns wide; the period at the end of this sentence is approximately 500 microns wide. These extremely small particles can slip past the respiratory system’s defense mechanisms and settle in the alveoli, tiny sacs at the bottom of the lungs where oxygen enters the bloodstream. The smoke particles stay there for months, causing chemical changes and damage in the lungs.

While wood smoke particles are tiny enough to evade the filters of the human respiratory system, they are also small enough to seep through closed doors and windows, increasing the hazards of urban bonfires: the smoke from a fire in one person’s yard is harmful to neighbors inside their own houses, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) notes that fine particles can trigger asthma attacks, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart attacks, especially in people susceptible to these health problems.

According to the MPCA, wood smoke also contains chemicals; many of these are toxic chemicals also found in tobacco smoke. Tars, soot, gases, and carbon monoxide are just a few of these harmful substances.

Wood smoke also contains mutagens, which cause cell mutations like genetic defects and chromosome damage, as stated by the Washington State Department of Ecology. Not all of these mutagens cause cancer, but carcinogens can enter the lungs by binding to the tiny particles in wood smoke.

Despite the extreme health issues associated with wood smoke, recreational burning has increased: it made up 3% of all wood burned in Minnesota in 2002-03, but jumped to 32% in 2011-12, according to the MPCA. This dramatic increase is attributed mostly to the rise in the use of outdoor recreational equipment such as fire pits and fire rings. An MPCA survey found that in the Twin Cities metro area, 91% of people who burned wood did so for pleasure; statewide, that number was 83%.

With the increase in recreational wood-burning in Minnesota, what are agencies doing to help? The MPCA encourages the use of a moisture meter, a tool that measures the percent of moisture in wood – the less moisture, the less smoke, so burning is only advisable when the wood’s moisture content is 20% or less. Educating people about the detriments of wood smoke and how to lessen their air pollution footprint will also alleviate the wood smoke problem; in this way, as Robert Moffitt of the American Lung Association points out on Minnpost.com, wood smoke education  is similar to that for tobacco smoke. Educating people on the damages done by tobacco smoke was a long process that culminated in indoor smoking ordinances, and education about wood smoke may lead to a similarly triumphant result.

Twin Citians have a false sense of security because our air is less polluted than other metro areas, but opening a window on a summer night or running through an urban neighborhood brings the realization that we have a smoky problem. Maintaining the status quo won’t improve our air quality.

As the population of the Twin Cities continues to grow, so do the number of individual woodsmoke footprints.

How China can correct their out-of-control air pollution remains to be seen. When I travel to China this March, I hope to learn how individual Chinese citizens and large corporations are actively engaged in finding solutions to air pollution.

In America, citizens can demand that elected officials pass laws to prevent harmful air pollution. Unfortunately for China, its citizens are not allowed to vote officials out of office if they do not respond to the demands of the people.

Woodbury students to attend Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai

Four Woodbury High School students – Mary Hong, Javin Medenwaldt, Zach Wieczorek, and Kathleen Danielson – will travel to Shanghai, China this March, along with the Woodbury High School Mandarin Chinese teacher, Yi-Fen Kuan, to participate in the EF Global Student Leaders Summit.

Students from China and the United States will meet for two days at the Summit, which focuses on our global economy, and look at economic opportunities and challenges through workshops and speeches by various presenters. The students will use their newly learned information to design social enterprises to benefit their communities.

Guest speakers presenting at the Summit include Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former U.S. Ambassador to China and the former governor of Utah, and Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg, the co-hosts of NPR’s Planet Money. Davidson and Blumberg are well known for their humorous descriptions of how the economy works and how it impacts the lives of listeners every day. A representative of DoSomething.org – a nonprofit organization that raises awareness among young people for numerous social issues such as homelessness, animal cruelty, and bullying, among others – will also speak at the Summit.

In addition to the Summit experience, students will learn about Chinese society and culture by traveling through China and visiting both Shanghai and Beijing, spending time with a local family, and touring a traditional hutong neighborhood and taking part in a tea ceremony.

In addition to these fascinating cultural experiences, students will collaborate with over 100 Chinese student leaders also attending the Summit. The Woodbury students especially look forward to discussing and exchanging ideas with fellow student leaders and comparing the obstacles faced by Chinese and American young people, as well as learning how Chinese students’ opinions of other countries and ideas differ from our own.

Mary, Javin, Zach, and Kathleen are eagerly waiting to embark on this enlightening tour of one of the world’s most swiftly growing countries and learn the enthralling history, culture, and economics of China through the Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai and the tour of Beijing.